The thing is we live in Midtown Atlanta, ground zero for the culture that birthed “Love & Hip Hop,” the Nae Nae and every rapper’s favorite stripper haunt, Club Onyx, so it only makes sense that the little girls around our way roll to the local high school with Ruby Woo-painted lips, bird wing-length eyelashes, weaves and wigs swinging and clothes that are questionable at best. Thanks to some serious home training and a boatload of common sense, my 15-year-old knows better than to even think about leaving the house dressed inappropriately. But that didn’t stop my freak-out the other morning when she tried to leave for school in a crop top that, when she raised her arms, showed off a little belly.
“Oh, no ma’am,” I said, shaking my head violently from side to side. “I’mma need you to either grab a jacket or put on a tank top if you’re going to wear that shirt, babe. Get to it.”
Be clear: I’m no prude and I’m not raising one. And on any other occasion—going to the mall, heading to a friend’s house, attending a party—what Mari was wearing would have been perfectly fine and age appropriate. But she was heading to school. Specifically, a public school. Where girls in general and Black girls, in particular, seem to be targeted for strict wardrobe policing by everyone from the principal to the janitor. The last thing I want to do during the course of my day is run up to the school with a change of clothes for my daughter, or, worse, have her dressed in somebody’s old, nasty clothes from the lost-and-found bin and sent to in-school detention for running afoul of the school’s dress policy.
To be fair, I think the dress code is reasonable: skirts and shorts need to be the same length as a student’s longest finger when hands are placed at her sides, spaghetti straps are not allowed and sagging and hats are a no-go for the boys. I wouldn’t want to see anybody’s drawers, boobs or booty while I’m working or studying either.
Where it gets dicey, though, is in the part of the rules that morph and stretch and twist to fit the awfully subjective whims of people who view Black bodies through a wholly different lens. In their eyes, an African American girl with 36Cs, thick thighs and a bubble booty rocking the same regular ol’ crop top and a cute skirt as her white counterpart becomes a nubile slut intent on turning out her teachers and fellow students in the nearest stairwell or beneath the bleachers. She is sexy. Inappropriate. Wild. Loose. And must be tamed, by any means necessary.
I saw this with my own eyes when my niece, a curvy little Beyonce Barbie, got sent home practically once a week over her clothes, many of which I purchased and thought were just fine, but that would draw the attention of one particular vice principal and a couple of teachers who would fall just shy of calling her a slut-puppy for wearing what every other teenager was wearing. On a couple of mornings, Nick and I actually went over to the school and watched the students walking into the front doors and took note that many of the white girls were wearing outfits infinitely more scandalous than my niece, but no one seemed to see fit to send them to the disciplinary office. They were too busy clocking what the Black and Latina girls were wearing. For sure, whenever we got called down to bring our niece a new outfit, she’d be sitting in that office seething next to a room full of girls of color, all of whom were deemed “inappropriate” by whoever took it upon themselves to decide this so.
It was disgusting.
And to have my daughter tell it, it’s not too much better at her school, either. “There’s a lot of white girls who wear some scandalous clothes and they never seem to get in trouble for it,” she said. “Like, ever.”
Granted, there are a few stories floating around about white girls facing the wrath of school administrators jumping all over them for their clothing choices. Late last week, a school superintendent in Noble, Oklahoma, came under fire for suggesting that some of her female students were “skanks” for dressing too provocatively for her taste and later forcing other female students to bend over to gauge whether their skirts and dresses were too short. (For the record: had someone forced my kid to bend over so she could take a look at her crotch area, y’all would be crowdsourcing my bail right now.) And a bunch of courageous middle schoolers in South Orange, New Jersey, took their school administration head-on with their #IAmNotADistraction campaign, arguing that rules focused solely on restricting girls’ outfits to keep boys from being “distracted” made them feel like they’re “bad” and need to cover up and that boys are “animalistic” and can’t control themselves.
They have a point. But add to the mix school suspensions and other punishments that Black girls face disproportionately to their white counterparts, and those deeply-rooted stereotypes of black girls and women as hypersexualized, vulgar, ghetto, animalistic, titillating hookers become a convenient-and-deadly weapon that slashes and burns our daughters’ educational opportunities, disciplinary records, self-esteem—even prom nights. It becomes more than a cute hashtag and a rally for the right to wear a bikini to a school-sponsored pool party. It becomes a matter of more odds stacked against our daughters’ education and graduation rates and certainly their right to… be.
I don’t want that for my kid. She doesn’t want that for herself, either. And so even on the hottest days, she wears pants instead of shorts, sweaters over crop tops and tanks, and avoids leggings like the plague. And frankly, that makes me hot as hell.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.