Activists and Researchers Say School Dress Codes Unfairly Target African American Girls

Controversies over school dress codes and whether they hold boys and girls to different standards are nothing new, but some young activists are drawing attention to what they say is yet another disparity in how schools regulate appearance. Black girls, some say, are unfairly targeted by non-inclusive dress codes at both public and private schools.— and a growing body of research supports their claims. 

A 2018 study of Washington, D.C., schools by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found that African American girls are “especially harmed by dress and grooming codes.” When enforcing these codes entails pulling students out of class or even sending them home, those girls then “fall behind in school simply because of the clothes they wear or the style of their hair and makeup,” according to the NWLC website.

This often-subjective targeting also contributes to ongoing inequities in school punishments for students of color and perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline for Black girls, the authors argue.

A majority of the schools in the 2018 study require uniforms and restrict accessories and hairstyles that inordinately affect Black women, such as banning hair wraps or head coverings that are worn for nonreligious reasons. The study includes interviews with girls ages 12 to 18 and other students who say that “Black girls, and especially curvier students, are disproportionately targeted” for dress code violations, according to the NWLC website. 

studentAfrican American girls must also contend with stereotypes and society’s sexualization of Black women from a young age, making them more likely to be accused of dress and uniform violations on the grounds of being too provocative, the report states. Such standards perpetuate rape culture by reinforcing the message that girls are responsible for men’s reactions to their bodies, the NWLC argues. 

The 2018 report successfully gained attention from the media and parents, and spurred support for young Black women pushing back against unjust dress codes. In Washington, D.C., the city passed a bill making it illegal for public and charter schools to suspend students for minor infractions such as dress code violations. A follow-up report by the NWLC in fall 2019 highlighted how some students had begun organizing walkouts and meeting with officials to push for dress codes that are more equitable to Black girls, including those who are transgender and gender non-conforming.

“Students, educators, and policymakers are making incredible progress, but schools continue to discriminate against Black girls by banning forms of expression that pose no threat and reinforce rape culture,” Nia Evans, an NWLC lead researcher, stated in a fall 2019 press release. 

In some cases, parents and students have turned to the media to fight back against discriminatory dress codes. In 2017, NPR reported on a Boston-area family whose twin teenage daughters had been banned from extracurricular activities for violating their charter school’s policy against hair extensions. The girls, who had been adopted into a White family, got the extensions to feel closer to their African American heritage, their parents told NPR. The students reported that officials once told a Black classmate that her natural hair texture violated the dress code and that she would need to have it chemically straightened. The family also claimed that White students often came to school with hair extensions but faced no repercussions. Eventually, they turned to the NAACP, who threatened a lawsuit before the school agreed to back down. 

Interviews and other research have shown that “Black girls attending predominantly White schools often feel particularly singled out by dress code enforcement,” according to The Mic, a youth-oriented news site. Charlotte Jacobs, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Independent School Teaching Residency, told the site that African American girls in this situation get the message that “your body is not your own. There’s a message that your body, and you, need to be controlled in some way.” 

School employees who are tasked with upholding policies that they feel uncertain about should consider what is best for a student’s education and well-being before enforcing a problematic dress code that may do “unnecessary harm,” education writer Jennifer Gonzalez says in a February 2019 article on the popular teacher website Cult of Pedagogy. When it comes to dress codes, rather than needlessly embarrassing and punishing students, administrators and teachers can build relationships and understanding by getting to know students’ backgrounds and their community, education expert Coshandra Dillard says in the article. 

The Mic gives several guidelines for schools to “improv[e] equity and inclusivity” in dress codes:

  • Include students in the decision-making process for dress code policies and punishments.
  • Prohibit pulling students from class or forcing them to miss class time due to dress code violations.
  • Avoid vague language that could lead to subjective dress code enforcement, such as “appropriate attire” or “distracting.” 

The NWLC also provides a checklist for schools as well as policy recommendations for administrators to ensure their dress codes treat all students equitably. For more information and to download additional resources, visit nwlc.org/resources/dresscoded.

Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of DiversityIS.