More Than Appearances
This past week, Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male college, instituted a dress code, which details what students should wear to various college functions and activities and what they should not. The items that are not allowed include: caps, do-rags, and hoods in the classrooms, cafeteria and indoors; sun glasses and grillz; clothing with lewd comments; sagging pants and pajamas in public; and women’s clothing and accessories.
Morehouse students have had mixed reactions to the new policies. Some students feel that these rules hinder their freedom of speech and expression – as adults, they should be able to wear what they want when they want. Other students think the policy is long overdue. When you are admitted to Morehouse, they feel, you become a Morehouse man and follow in a long tradition of great African American men such as civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian Bond or national health leaders Louis W. Sullivan and David Satcher. This kind of legacy requires dressing and carrying oneself in a professional way.
Last year, my colleague Shaun Harper and I wrote an article published in the Journal of Negro Education entitled “The Consequences of Conservatism at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Ironically, much of the article focused on campus dress codes at black colleges. As part of our research, we reviewed the dress codes at all of the black colleges in the United States. We found similar dress codes to the one instituted at Morehouse and we called these codes into question as scholars typically do. We wondered what kind of impact conservative dress codes would have on the individual autonomy of students and argued that these often puritanical codes are part of a long history of black colleges compensating for negative views by white society of black people.
However, as I think about the new Morehouse dress code, I am reminded that much of America (read: white America) does not see African Americans as individuals. If a young white male dresses in pajamas or saggy pants, and a lewd t-shirt on a predominantly white campus, he is seen neither as a representative of his race nor his campus. And let’s be honest, anyone who visits campuses these days, including some of the most prestigious in the country, will see many white male students displaying more of their underwear than most of us want to see, wearing caps inside, and displaying crude T-shirts. But when a young black male wears saggy pants, pajamas, or a do-rag, many Americans see him as a representative of all black America (and in this case, Morehouse College). The stakes are higher for black men because of American racism. The stakes are higher for Morehouse College as well.
There are those who argue that when one gains admission to a college, one signs up for the rules of that college – to be a Morehouse man in this case. There are others who claim that more learning takes place when we take decisions about clothing and fashion out of students’ hands. For me, the most convincing argument is made by those who want to change the nation’s perceptions of young black men and it seems that Morehouse College is making this argument. The institution’s president wants the students to dress like professional men because he wants them to become professional men.
When I first saw the dress code, I immediately forwarded it to a good friend who graduated from Morehouse about 20 years ago. He was happy to see the code and responded that with regard to Morehouse, “Many are called but few are chosen” – reminding me that Morehouse was a standard setter, not a trend follower.
Yet, it does seem like there could be a middle ground. Perhaps when attending school functions and classes, these young men could be expected to dress professionally but in their personal time, they could be free to express their individuality – seems like that is what most adults do once they are in the “real world.” But then again, the stakes are higher for the young, black men at Morehouse, aren’t they?
One of the most controversial aspects of the dress code is the banning of women’s clothing and garb. Even though the Morehouse administration consulted the college’s gay students group and the majority of these students voted in favor of the rules, including the ban on women’s garb, this rule may give some pause. I am not an expert on this topic, but I do wonder what will happen if a Morehouse man wants to become a Morehouse woman? What happens to the transgender Morehouse man? Does he go to another college or stay at Morehouse? I don’t have the answer, but I think the Morehouse dress code raises some important questions about race, sexuality, and masculinity that we in higher education should tackle head on and hesitate to avoid. As my friend said, Morehouse College is a standard setter and has the opportunity to be out in front on discussing these issues.
By raising issues about cross-dressing and dress and appearance generally, Morehouse is forcing discussions and more thought about the way society views black men. And Morehouse is making sure that its black men – who already defy stereotypes with their ambition and intelligence – will do so with their attire as well.
Marybeth Gasman is associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. A historian of higher education, her books include Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund(Johns Hopkins University Press). She is also the co-editor of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Triumphs, Troubles, and Taboos (Palgrave).