Schools celebrate diversity, but force students to leave their cultural knapsacks at the door

Parents are questioning school rules against braids, twists, cornrows and dreadlocks, traditional African-American hairstyles. (AJC File)

Rouhollah Aghasaleh is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of middle and secondary education at Georgia State University and cofounder of Feminist Scholar-Activists. In this piece, Aghasaleh talks about dress codes as enforcement of privilege.

His essay comes at a time when black parents are questioning school rules against braids, twists, cornrows or dreadlocks — traditional African-American hairstyles. Parents are asking why these hairstyles are deemed distracting by school dress codes when ponytails or pigtails are not. Why are these styles in violation of school dress codes requiring hair to be “clean and neat”?

(Here is a good New York Times op-ed on the unfairness of rules that penalize black students for essentially having “black hair.”)

Aghasaleh’s piece goes far deeper than school dress codes and, in quoting an anonymous racist comment at the University of Georgia, it uses a racial slur.

By Rouhollah Aghasaleh

In 2013, an anonymous user posted on the University of Georgia Black Affairs Council’s Facebook page this message: “Why can’t you dumb dirty niggers stop stinking up the place? Let UGA be RIGHT for good WHITE Christian students.”

While portrayed as an isolated incident, this is an honest translation of what white supremacist system implicitly conveys to underprivileged people on a regular basis. Last year, visiting a local high school in a majority black working class community in Georgia, I confronted a poster posted all over the school. The poster, titled “The Dress Code,” included figures of two young adolescents; a black male wearing baggy jeans, bandana, tank top with a beer logo on front and a white female wearing short shorts, halter top with spaghetti straps and a hat. The poster was meant to visually portray the inappropriateness of hip hop clothing, revealing too much skin and working class attire at school.

In the picture, representation of working-class masculinity and femininity was vivid, which was, of course, entangled with race as well. It conveyed a message to working class as well as black students (and faculty and staff) that it aims to exclude their culture from the school environment. It also emphasized what is valued as modesty in the South. Knowing that clothing is a socio-cultural construct and potentially represents ethnicity, class, sexuality, and many other things, posting this picture simply means that white middle-class clothing and culture is privileged over working class and black ones.

I wrote to the principal: In a community in which the majority is African-American and from a lower socio-economic status, this implicitly teaches students their culture is disruptive for their education and academic success. However, all individuals should receive an equal respect and all cultures should be valued equally in a public institution. How could we call for diversity and multiculturalism, and yet tell students to leave their cultural knapsack at the door?

Dress code as it exists in schools means some bodies are more privileged over the other. Dress code is to regulate and maintain the normative gender, sexuality, race, and class. Halter-tops, tube tops, one shoulder tops, muscle shirts, see-through or mesh tops are not to be worn. Blouses, shirts or tops that reveal bare backs, midriffs, undergarments, or have spaghetti straps or revealing necklines are also described as inappropriate. Similarly, acting black and wearing clothes of working class is considered disruptive for education and inappropriate for businesses.

We have been taught from an early age to make quick judgments about people as a way to keep ourselves safe. However, those quick judgments can be very dangerous when we rely on stereotypes. This is what Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson did when he shot Michael Brown. Judgments about bodies are not limited to the criminal incidents. It is rather a normalized part of our lives.

In our daily life we make these quick judgments constantly. We have been taught that bodies with threadbare clothes and bodies that look drugged are more likely to be dangerous. Many of us – regardless of our race and gender — have been disciplined to stay away from black males in baggy jeans and hoodies or bandanas, listening to loud rap music. We continually assess the bodies and judge how dangerous those bodies could be, might be in downtown bars, on city buses, on underground trains or elsewhere in public places. In so doing, we produce a young black male as potentially violent and ourselves as vulnerable and potentially victims. When we choose not to sit next to a poor, male, black body in the bus; or when we prefer to hire a white taxi driver rather than an immigrant one; or when we think an underdressed female body is sexually available; we reproduce values and contribute to an unjust discourse which dehumanizes other bodies.

If a 12-year-old white boy waves around a toy gun at a playground, it is unlikely that one is going to assume it is real and shoot him if he does not drop it. When a 17-year-old white male walks home alone one evening, in a family neighborhood, wearing a hoodie, no one is going to say he looks suspicious or assume he is on drugs, pursue him, and gun him down before police arrive. And when an 18-year-old white male is walking with a friend down the middle of a street in broad daylight, no one is going to call for backup and fire deadly shots at him six times, regardless of whether he fights or flees, whether he puts his hands up or not.

Body matters. Some bodies will never have to worry about these things, and some others will have to worry about them all their lives. Some bodies are innocent until proven guilty, whereas some others are assumed to be guilty until they are killed and found innocent after it is too late.

We, people of color, are not criminals; our brown and black skin tone should not make us potential threats.  Our men are not smugglers and rapists and our women are not Jezebels and sexually accessible.  Like all other boys, our boys are cute, not men with criminal capabilities. And, our girls are not distractions. We want justice.  Let us breathe. I echo Eric Garner’s voice before it gets too late, “I can’t breathe.”

I can’t breathe.

Reader Comments 0

35 comments
MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

I want to state that I am grateful that both Rouhollah Aghasale and Maureen Downey have the courage and the intellect to try to stretch the thinking of others and to encourage others to think outside of the box, like David Brooks and Frederick Douglass have demonstrated in Brooks' editorial in today's AJC (8/5/16) (link given in my post far below). 


 Please, readers, read the New York Times Op-Ed link above (in red), which explains  the unfairness of rules that penalize black students for essentially having “black hair.”


Let us grow in consciousness beyond hair type and hoodies.

An American Patriot
An American Patriot

Number ONE - Why, oh why would you, Maureen Downey use, quote, put in your column anything coming from the most FAR LEFT LIBERAL NEWSPAPER in the country? oh, oh, so you're trying to emulate that piece of #$%^&.  


You know what, Ms. Downey?  You should be ashamed of yourself for posting an article like this.  This has nothing to do with what your "get schooled" blog has being doing over the years and is perfectly timed to fit the particular election cycle America is experiencing presently. I guess your editor "suggested" you run it to take advantage of the recent publicity that the BLM movement (which, IMO is all about gun control and killing our policemen) and to fit the narrative by the MSM/Liberal/hate media groups which, I take it, the AJC is now a part of.  This article does not reflect well on you and damages your reputation among serious advocates for serious education reforms in Georgia.  The media in America has destroyed any chance that our most important election in years will not be skewed because of the hate and vitriol coming from the MSM, which now includes the AJC.

Another comment
Another comment

Micheal Brown was a thief and then he tried to shot the Police officer. Read the entire Grand Jury transcript like I did, before you make this thug a saint. The witnesses either recanted or told different stories to the FBI and Grand Jury. Then others came forward to tell the truth about what Michael Brown the thug who had just strong arm robbed the Convience store did to the cop. The white cop is the victim. All one has to do is read about two days of Grand Jury testimony to get the same conclusion. I read every single minute of the Grand Jury transcripts and the FBI transcripts.

The issue is folks wearing gang colors. Then size 20 pluses that think that tights are appropriate without a dress.

I have a problem with the dress codes being extremely discriminatory to my normal weight white daughters. I could not have met the dress code in high school. They have become Sharia law.

The writers viewpoints are a ridiculous racist piece of dribble.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

So this is what passes for "research" in today's universities.  Gotcha.

Think back to this drivel next time you hear someone extol the benefits of some "researched based" blah, blah, blah.  Rouhollah Aghasaleh is a perfect example of someone who has too much "education" and not enough Knowledge.

PSDAD
PSDAD

"Last year, visiting a local high school in a majority black working class community in Georgia, I confronted a poster posted all over the school."


Oh my!  It saddens me to know that this is the work of an individual who has actually completed his doctoral studies and has earned a post doctoral position in middle and secondary education.  

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

To tell the truth, I am somewhat confused. The poster about "The Dress Code" seemed to show two examples of students who didn't meet the code, the second being the young white female in the short shorts and tank top with spaghetti straps. And she doesn't seem to me to represent the "working-class," for that seems to be the way that a great many young white women dress in high school and also college (the ones with good figures). 


I do wish that school dress codes could distinguish between African American styles that seem gang-related and those that are race-related, such as the corn-row, etc., hair-styles. Those hair-styles have long been a very practical way to keep the hair neat.


But then, I can remember the "'Afros" of the '60s. HUUUUUGE!

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf


"I do wish that school dress codes could distinguish between African American styles that seem gang-related and those that are race-related, such as the corn-row, etc., hair-styles. "


You just put your finger on the issue with dress codes that are not equitably enforced.Gang colors and gang symbolism have no place in schools and this guy is using a  dog whistle appeal to legitimize such apparel and hair style.All of you educators out there-do you want your hallways to become battlegrounds between these vicious gangs? Is that what "equality" and "diversity" mean these days?

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf


"But then, I can remember the "'Afros" of the '60s. HUUUUUGE!"


Yep. My shortstop's 'fro barely tucked in under his cap in 1979.(He always wore it facing forward,BTW). I played second base and my hair was quite long.Those were the days.

bu22
bu22

" This is what Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson did when he shot Michael Brown" Sad that people choose to remain ignorant.  Maybe if she would let go of her cultural stereotypes and get the facts.  Michael Brown tried to get the police officer's gun and shoot him.  "Hands up, don't shoot" is one of the biggest, most destructive lies our society has had.  That she still spouts this nonsense discredits everything else she says.

Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf @xxxzzz The point made is still valid. The BLM people operate on belief, not facts based on investigation. Where do you find people like this?  Who cares about "feminist scholar activists" who make stupid arguments?

Astropig
Astropig

@Starik @OriginalProf @xxxzzz


BLM- Angry,racist mob at war with mainstream society and the rule of law.


KKK- Angry,racist mob at war with mainstream society and the rule of law.

Another comment
Another comment

How can we tell with the crazy made up names, that some teenage parent thought was cute!

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

My lengthy post has disappeared.

kaelyn
kaelyn

Wake up call to the author - sagging pants with wife beaters and short shorts with halter tops ARE inappropriate school attire. This message is coming from a brown woman with a brown husband and two brown kids. I must have skipped the chapter in "How To Be Authentically Black" that said my cultural knapsack was empty. So sad for me. I didn't realize I was missing something.

"Dress code as it exists in schools means some bodies are more privileged over the other. Dress code is to regulate and maintain the normative gender, sexuality, race, and class. Halter-tops, tube tops, one shoulder tops, muscle shirts, see-through or mesh tops are not to be worn. Blouses, shirts or tops that reveal bare backs, midriffs, undergarments, or have spaghetti straps or revealing necklines are also described as inappropriate. Similarly, acting black and wearing clothes of working class is considered disruptive for education and inappropriate for businesses." ?????

You've got to be joking, but thanks for making the argument for uniforms. Make them all wear the same thing and dress becomes a non-issue. One question. PLEASE, someone tell me what "acting black" is because my blood boils every time I hear someone say that. The author, as a black man, should rethink using that phrase because it implies that the things MOST people believe to be productive traits are associated with whiteness. That's not the message kids need to hear. It alienates them from achievement because it says doing well is for "other" people. It's nothing but pure racism to tell a black teenager that sagging pants are a relevant part of his culture and then attack dress codes as not being sensitive to blacks. It's ridiculous and nothing but a setup for failure. You can certainly make an argument about hair, but clothes? Please.

I saw my husband off to work an hour ago. He has to wear a tie, just like his white male colleagues. It'll be the first thing he takes off when he gets in his car after work. It's not a black thing or a white thing, it's an I LIKE TO BE EMPLOYED thing.

My last point is that the author failed at trying to connect school dress codes with several recent BLM shootings. I don't see any association.

daks
daks

Black Lives Matter is a gay group. It was started by two lesbians and its most prominent spokesman is a gay man. It's a vehicle for middle-class, mostly mixed-race college kids to act out because they're at colleges they never should have been admitted to, or because of their rejection by the black community for being homosexual.


OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@daks 

This post is subtly satiric, demonstrating all of the white stereotypes against "outsiders" that are really factually inaccurate, right? Especially good at skewering way off-base LGBT ignorance! Congrats!

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @daks


"This post is subtly satiric, demonstrating all of the white stereotypes against "outsiders" that are really factually inaccurate, right?"


Wrong. This is ugly racism delivered with a dog whistle.Nothing satiric about it.

Bitly
Bitly

@OriginalProf @daks 

Look closer to home. The mirror, even. An ironic BLM that ignores Chicago's ugly black-on-black crime has found its natural home in the illiberal modern day college campus.

Astropig
Astropig

I'm just going to come out and say what a lot of you are thinking:The above is self pitying nonsense trash.The use of a vile epithet gleaned from anonymous social media is not by any definition worthy of publication.It is merely used to incite,inflame and provoke.


Anyone that wants to wallow in racial hatred as above is welcome to,but in the real world,we have moved on.

Bob Yall
Bob Yall

Good god... please... use a better example for humanity than Eric Garner. Garner was 43 and had been arrested over THIRTY times in his life going back to 1980 including for assault and grand larceny... at the time of his death he was out on BAIL for selling illegal cigarettes, marijuana possession, and present a false identity to an officer... the store owner called the cops about his repeated attempts to sell cigarettes thereby undercutting the legal sales of the store owner trying to make an honest living... Eric Garner DID NOT die due to the choke hold the officer put on him as we was RESISTING arrest... he died of cardiac arrest after the fact... he was over 350lbs and suffered from heart disease, severe asthma, diabetes, obesity and sleep apnea... Had he not been committing a CRIME and resisted a lawful arrest ... he would be alive, most likely today... and still be the career criminal thug he was with 30 something arrests... And you wonder why black children grow up the way they do in the inner city ??? Garner has 5 children and they had a really good role model... wouldn't you agree ?... LOL...Sakes alive... Be real... and step off your liberal idiotic rants... Did he deserve to die ... NO !!!  But the choices HE MADE led him to his death... its that simple. BE ACCOUNTABLE for your actions and decisions folks !!!

Tim Langan
Tim Langan

You post some thought provoking articles. This one is irresponsible. It takes imaginative logic to tie Michael Brown's death while attacking a police officer to school dress codes as this author tried. There may be school dress code provisions at certain schools that unfairly discriminate (the hair example may be one if it is incorporated at some schools), but I know plenty of black parents and/or parents of girls who are glad saggy pants and spaghetti straps aren't allowed at their kids' schools.

Katie Dunn
Katie Dunn

Hello Tim, your privilege is showing

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Relevant to the content of this thread.  David Brooks, of the New York Times, continues to grow in insight, thereby becoming an outstanding columnist:


Excerpt: "Most of all, he was using art to reteach people how to see.

We are often under the illusion that seeing is a very simple thing. You see something, which is taking information in, and then you evaluate, which is the hard part.

But in fact perception and evaluation are the same thing. We carry around unconscious mental maps, built by nature and experience, that organize how we scan the world and how we instantly interpret and order what we see.

With these portraits, Douglass was redrawing people’s unconscious mental maps. He was erasing old associations about blackness and replacing them with new ones. As Gates writes, he was taking an institution like slavery, which had seemed to many so inevitable, and leading people to perceive it as arbitrary. He was creating a new ideal of a just society and a fully alive black citizen, and therefore making current reality look different in the light of that ideal.

“Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements,” Douglass wrote.  This is where artists make their mark, by implanting pictures in the underwater processing that is upstream from conscious cognition.  Those pictures assign weights and values to what the eyes take in.

I never understand why artists want to get involved in partisanship and legislation. The real power lies in the ability to recode the mental maps people project into the world.

A photograph is powerful, even in the age of video, because of its ability to ingrain a single truth. The special “Vision and Justice” issue of Aperture shows that the process of retraining the imagination is ongoing. There are so many images that startlingly put African-American models in places where our culture assumes whiteness — in the Garden of Eden, in Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

These images don’t change your mind; they smash through some of the warped lenses through which we’ve been taught to see. "


http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/02/opinion/how-artists-change-the-world.html?ref=opinion

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

I well understand your feeling of not being able to breathe in Georgia. In 1963, I could not breathe in Jim Crow Georgia (yes, Jim Crow was still going on in Georgia until the early 1970s) with its paternalism toward too many, including women as well as minorities, and its anti-intellectual environment.  Thus, I left for NYC at age 20 where I completed my undergraduate degree before returning to Georgia in 1970, where I taught for half a school year in a segregated all-black school.


The dress code in Georgia is not the main problem; it is only symptomatic of a problem that is much deeper, then and now.

Astropig
Astropig

@MaryElizabethSings


"  Thus, I left for NYC at age 20 where I completed my undergraduate degree before returning to Georgia in 1970, where I taught for half a school year in a segregated all-black school."


You must have taught at an imaginary school before they fired you midway through the school year.Legal segregation ended in 1965.

Starik
Starik

@Astropig @MaryElizabethSings Segregation in DeKalb is nearly complete.  There seems to be a policy to drive as many whites and Asians, and upwardly striving blacks and whites, out of the schools. Maybe Dr. Green can fix it - draw rational attendance lines and enforce them.

Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf @Astropig @MaryElizabethSings Yes, it did. And as time goes by black folks are accepted as neighbors, spouses, co-workers, and students. Problems arise when school boards pack formerly effective, diverse schools, especially middle and high schools, with kids who have "underclass" in their knapsacks, and prevent real students from learning. Acting "white" is the road to the middle class and above.

Vera Wynn
Vera Wynn

Why would parents put their children through this when they could build and support their own community schools.