If you want to read a compelling defense of the individuality of spirit and mind in young black men—and their right to choose the normal range of teenage self-expression—look no further than this week’s Race Manners column, in which The Root’s Jenée Desmond-Harris explains why she’s skeptical about a school principal who stresses “dress for success” life advice for the black boys that he mentors.
The bottom line, she writes, is that young black men, all too frequently stereotyped, have the same humanity at their core as any other kids—and that teachers, parents and society at large ought to “treat these students like people with potential, not problems that need to be repackaged.” I don’t disagree.
And there really should be no debate that the put-a-tie-on principal’s No. 1 priority should be his students’ scholastic development.
But even if it’s wrong, appearances count. And young black men—too often written off as low-achievers by those unwilling to deal with them as individuals—should have the benefit of knowing exactly what’s at stake when they start to make choices about how they present themselves.
Of course, as Desmond-Harris notes, it’s a flagrant double standard that America somehow “leaves room for white male success to come in the form of scruffy facial hair and jeans or shorts worn around the pingpong table at a startup company’s headquarters,” while most young black men, by contrast, enter the job market under considerably stricter scrutiny.
Often, though, that’s how it is. And if I had to guess, the lesson that this principal wants young black men to absorb isn’t that they should aspire to be dandies but that even if many of them will go on to become coders, artists, entrepreneurs or professors—fields where there might be some flex in the dress code—most of them, like most working people, will wind up starting careers in places—white collar or blue collar—where the dress codes typically show them less latitude.
Look at my picture at the top of this article, and you’ll see someone who’s worked in different fields and has been taken as everything from black to Latino to Middle Eastern. But what’s consistently the case, in my experience—even if it’s sad to say—is that folks tend to be a lot more accommodating when I’m wearing a jacket or tie.
It’s a way of looking at it that I can imagine might be too Don Lemon-y for some, and I can respect that. This is, as they say, a free country, and I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone who works with kids what particular wisdom they should impart. By that same standard, though, I’m also not critical of a principal who encourages boys to think about appearance as an overall part of how they’ll be perceived as men.
And whatever else you take away, I certainly don’t intend to lend any credence to Geraldo Rivera’s twisted theory that “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” That’s a sick rationalization on its face.
Everyone, including young men of color, clearly has the right to walk down the street without having to anticipate being stalked just because of how he or she looks. But when it comes to this principal, and maxims like “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” we’re not talking about individual rights—or even what’s right, in general. We’re talking about teaching kids how to navigate the world they’re in.