Earlier this month, the principal of James Madison High School, in Houston, Carlotta Outley Brown, sent out a directive to parents. Any parent wearing revealing and/or slovenly attire would be banned from entering the school, and in some cases, prohibited from so much as setting foot on school premises.
Items banned from the building include shower caps, hair rollers, bonnets, satin caps (a.k.a. “Do-rags,” or “durags,” in the parlance of Solange and the New York Times), house shoes, undershirts (for men), and pajamas, or anything that could be construed as such, a topic on which the directive casts a wide net: “[A]ttire that could possibly be pajamas, underwear, or home setting wear, such as flannel pajamas,” it reads.
Items banned from the entire campus include hot pants and Daisy Dukes, cleavage-revealing dresses, saggy pants or ripped-up, overly revealing jeans, and leggings, another topic on which the order goes to some length to explain. To warrant a ban, they must be “showing your bottom and where your body is not covered from the front or the back (rear).”
“You are your child’s first teacher,” principal Brown lectures at the end of the letter. “However, please know we have to have standards, most of all we must have high standards. We are preparing your child for a prosperous future. We want them to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for any setting they may be in. This is a professional educational environment where we are teaching our children what is right and what is correct or not correct. We value you but we must ask you to value and follow the rules of the school environment.” (The memo came about in the wake of a disagreement with a mother over her bohemian choice of attire—a headscarf and Marilyn Monroe T-shirt dress—on the day she attempted to enroll her daughter at Madison.)
More than one mother has detected what they perceive as sexism. Yes, some male and unisex attire is verboten, but much more of it seems aimed at form-fitting or revealing clothing.
“It mentions sagging pants, and so on, but is primarily directed at mothers,” said M. Yvonne Taylor, a former AP English teacher in the Houston Independent School District and now a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy at UT-Austin. “And no, I don’t want to see parents dressed like that at school, but to bar them is inappropriate and condescending.”
In an environment like that, Taylor says that what matters is parental presence, not their attire. “Black and brown parents are often stereotyped as not caring enough about their children’s education,” she said. “To turn parents away because of how they are dressed seems highly counterintuitive.”
(A request for comment has been sent to Brown. We’ll update as necessary.)
When he was younger, Taylor’s son was enrolled in a public school in a prosperous Austin neighborhood. Despite the fact that many of her son’s classmates’ mothers wore tight yoga pants, low-cut tops, and even flannel pajama bottoms to school, no such memo emerged from that school’s principal’s office. “They’d never be spoken to like that, let alone barred from entering,” Taylor said.
Taylor considers Brown’s memo to be a form of “respectability politics,” which Taylor defines as “the way minority groups police their behavior to fit white standards of decorum and behavior.” Coined by author Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, this tendency among African Americans has roots in the works of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington; curmudgeonly NBA commentator Charles Barkley, comedian Chris Rock, and even Barack Obama have been accused of practicing respectability politics.
Houston DJ and radio commentator Bobby Phats echoed Taylor’s sentiments. He too thought there was some good in the content.“Maybe your butt cheeks shouldn’t be on public display in a school environment,” he said. His outlook changed after he read Brown’s letter.
Phats believes the ban on T-shirt dresses, cleavage-baring tops, and form-fitting leggings crosses the line from sensible modesty into classism.
“It tells women that they need to hide their bodies . . . their curves. It also serves to comfort those who believe there is some correlation between how parents may sometimes dress and the ability of their kids to become successful. It’s ridiculous. And it’s textbook respectability politics. It’s a black principal telling black parents and kids, ‘If you want to be successful, you need to dress in a way that makes other races feel comfortable with you at all times.’”
Taylor favors what is known as “restorative practices,” an approach that attempts to foster community among students, parents, teachers, and administrators; Brown’s memo comes across as too “us versus them” for Taylor’s liking.
Taylor points to Gilma Sanchez, principal of Austin’s Barrington Elementary, as an example of best practices. At Barrington, located near a warren of rundown apartment complexes at the corner of North Lamar and East Rundberg, a full 95 percent of the students are low-income; Sanchez understands their needs better than most, because her own childhood could be termed Dickensian-on-the-Rio-Grande.
If a student comes to school out of compliance with the dress code, they aren’t sent home or otherwise punished. Instead, Sanchez has a closet full of more suitable attire. Why should the student be sanctioned, just because they are homeless, or don’t have access to a washing machine, or are in the throes of a family emergency?
“School staff across the country, especially in low-to-middle-class areas, have been bemoaning the lack of parental involvement for years,” Phats said. “So why on earth would you implement any policy that could make that more difficult?”
Correction: The original version of this story stated that parents of students at the school that Taylor’s son currently attends come to the school dressed in tight yoga pants, low-cut tops, and flannel pajama bottoms. In fact, it was a school her son previously attended with such parents. The story has been updated. Texas Monthly regrets the error.