Black girls in US pushed out of school over racist and sexist school dress codes, report finds

Maya Oppenheim

Black girls in the US are being disproportionately pushed out of school over racist and sexist school dress codes and subjected to victim blaming by teachers, a new report has found.

Researchers at the National Women’s Law Centre (NWLC) found around half of secondary schools banned hair wraps or other head coverings, 59 per cent regulated the length of skirts and shorts, and 55 per cent regulated tightness and fit of clothing.

The study, which surveyed schools in Washington DC, found almost a quarter banned tights or leggings. And it found more than half of the schools with the harshest dress codes have a majority black student population.

Jasmine Tucker, the NWLC’s director of research, said many schools’ dress code policies target clothing most often worn by girls such as regulating tank top strap width.

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She argued black girls face assumptions about “who they are and what they are like” built on stereotypes – adding that many traditionally black hairstyles and head coverings, which often have specific cultural or religious meaning, are sometimes seen to be “unprofessional”.

“Many schools ban head wraps or other head coverings and specify that hair must be ‘neat’, which is another way of banning certain hairstyles,” she told The Independent.

“NWLC spoke with many DC students who reported that black girls in their schools are being disproportionately targeted for violating dress code policies. This is unacceptable. Black girls deserve to bring their authentic selves to school and should not face unnecessary barriers to participating in the classroom.”

“Many dress codes specify disciplinary action that will be taken if a student is violating dress code, and includes barring students from class and even in or out of school suspension. They are disproportionately punishing students by standing in the way of learning for what are minor infractions.”

Ms Anderson noted high schools which are majority black tend to have more “stringent and harsher” student codes of conduct overall.

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“Often times it is black administrators carrying out harsh discipline policies because they believe it’s necessary to prepare black students for a world that already views them as less innocent and more adult,” she said.

“But in actuality, restrictive dress codes and discipline policies reinforce anti-black stereotypes by telling black girls that their authentic selves are incompatible with academic success. Black girls deserve teachers and school leaders that are willing to challenge systemic racism and misogyny that have created barriers for too many students for too long.”

Ms Anderson added: “Any adult sexualising girls’ bodies by policing their clothing is problematic for students and results in negative academic, social, and emotional effects on students. Too often girls recounted stories about administrators implying that girls are inviting sexual harassment because of what they are wearing.

"Not only is this blaming the victim, it also communicates to boys or other harassers that they are not responsible for their own behaviour.”

This “boys will be boys attitude” prioritises the “desires of harassers over the bodily autonomy” of survivors, she added.

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The campaigner called for schools to teach boys to respect their peers irrespective of what they choose to wear – arguing this issue would not arise when students get to university and then go into the world of work if it is addressed early in primary and secondary school.

NWLC carried out interviews with students, parents, and school administrators and looked at the dress code policies of 29 public and charter-schools.

Chloe Pine, a student at School Without Walls High School, said: “If you go to school every single day and a male teacher tells you that you are showing too much skin or that you look inappropriate, or that you are distracting other boys, you are again embedding in their head that they have to live up to some certain standard that a male made. And that is just not the way that society should be."

The report comes a year after the NWLC's initial study on racist and sexist enforcement of dress codes sparked far-reaching campaigning and activism from students and parents across the US. The Council of the District of Columbia passed the Student Fair Access to Schools Act of 2018 – a bill that would ban out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions including dress code violations.

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