Black Female Students Are Most Harshly Punished For Breaking School Dress Codes

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There’s lots of evidence that dress codes are super sexist — and now there’s more evidence that they’re racist too

The National Women’s Law Center released a new report this week that shows, in deep detail, how harmful dress codes can be, especially for female students of color. The report, called “Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools,” shows what many students already know: that black female students are more harshly disciplined — not to mention disciplined more often — for dress code violations. The result? Lost time in the classroom, lost learning opportunities, reinforced gender and race stereotyping, and the promotion of rape culture in school.

In other words: this is very bad news, and current dress codes aren’t helping either students or schools. We’ve known for a few years that dress codes can hurt female students, and now we know that black female students in particular suffer unfair treatment.

The study followed 21 black female students through 12 different schools in Washington, DC, that have dress codes. The girls were asked about their specific experiences with dress codes and dress code violations, while the schools’ dress code policies were closely analyzed by researchers. The results clearly pointed to environments where black girls are unfairly targeted, both by the rules themselves and by the faculty and administration enforcing them.

The report broke down the racist dress code issues into two main components: the policies and how they’re enforced.

Problems with dress code rules included: overly strict rules, rules that require expensive purchases, rules that don’t allow kids to be comfortable (not too warm or cold) and rules based on racial or gender stereotypes. Problems with dress code enforcement include: discriminatory enforcement of the rules, enforcement that promotes rape culture or involves shaming a student or touching them, and enforcement that means taking a child from their classroom.

The report is filled with stories from young black women, ages 12 to 18, who describe how they’re treated — and how others are treated in comparison. Many students point out that the rules enforce sexist stereotypes that hurt all students, including gender-specific policies about make-up, earrings, skirts, and bras. Others target black culture, like rules about hair styles and headscarves.

The rules often push girls to be feminine and “lady-like,” while preventing them from being comfortable or active (such as schools that allow female students to wear skirts but not shorts during warm months).

Rules are also often steeped in language that sexualizes female students or makes them seem responsible for harassment — words like “distracting” or “inappropriate.” It’s also language that puts male learning ahead of female learning.

The report states that black female students are 20.8 times more likely to get suspended from school, and it’s in large part because of stereotypes that make them seen as older and more sexual then their schoolmates, according to the research. It’s common for black female students to be disciplined for clothing that’s described as too revealing or distracting, and researchers found that black students with curvier body types are targeted even more.

Perhaps the most moving part of the new study are the quotes from the students themselves:

“For trans students and non-binary students, dress codes are just another form of restriction,” said 17-year-old Sage Grace Dolan-Sandrino. “It’s traumatizing to be forced into clothes that don’t fit your identity.”

“I’ve noticed how my friends have gotten dress coded on stuff because they have bigger hips, bigger breasts, bigger butts,” said 16-year-old Ayianna Davis, “yet I have worn similar things and I have not been dress coded because I am skinner and it is less noticeable on me. That kind of thing teaches girls to be ashamed of their bodies.”

The girls’ quotes often make much more sense than the dress code rules:

“When it comes between an item of clothing and a child’s education, the child’s education should always reign supreme,” said one study participant named Beatrice.

The report ends with dress code recommendations to stop discrimination and promote equality and a healthy learning environment. Some of the policy recommendations include: beginning the dress code with an equity policy, not banning celebrations of culture and diversity such as headscarves, yarmulkes, dreadlocks, or cornrows, writing rules that don’t discriminate or target people of different sizes or body types, and only including gender neutral rules. They also encourage not punishing students by having them leave the classroom and to avoid shaming them for their clothing choices.

The full report should be required reading for anyone who wants better schools and the fair treatment of all students.