Dear Race Manners:
I'm a graduate student in education and currently a teacher's assistant at a somewhat diverse urban charter school in a major city where I hope to teach in the future. The principal (African American) is a very dedicated professional who is himself a mentor and father figure to many of the students, who look up to him.
This year he launched an after-school club for the black male students where he brings in speakers and doles out personal and life-skills advice, with a heavy focus on self-presentation. The boys who participate have agreed to wear bow ties to school every Friday, and I'm told he's constantly driving home messages like, "Dress for the job you want now" and "No one will respect you until you respect yourself [and show it through your clothing]."
I myself am Hispanic/white, and I'm aware that I may be out of touch with the cultural forces and priorities here. But I have to ask: If this message is so important, why aren't all of our students getting it? And isn't there something just wrong about black male students being singled out for this focus on clothing versus academic development and normal teenage experiences? I have to admit, I feel bad for some very good students who have been pushed to place what seems like an undue focus on outward appearance. Advice on what to say or do? —Bothered by Bow Ties
Your school's principal sounds like a wonderful person who wants the best for his kids and is giving black boys the extra support and attention that anyone would agree they could use, given their place in the current landscape of educational inequality.
But I agree with you. The focus on their outward appearance—potentially at the expense of what's happening on the inside—rubs me wrong. Really wrong.
Here's why: It strikes me as a reflection of a limited and sad worldview. One that 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 start-up company’s headquarters, but includes a narrow mandate for their African-American counterparts: Look like you popped out of the Men's Wearhouse circular or be a danger to society and a total failure. Choose either sagging pants and "the streets" or button-ups and conventional success. Decide between a hoodie and getting shot or a bow tie and a role as a "high-achiever."
Self-expression? Freedom to experiment? Normal teenage rebellion? Creativity? Forget it. All of those are for other, more privileged people.
My belief is that good-hearted people buy into this thinking because it's seductive to imagine that we can use clothing to control for individual racism against black men and boys, rather than addressing all of the complicated forces that lead to racial inequality.
If you ask me, it's why "Suit & Tie in the 217," that video of black boys (who are at a stage of life that simply doesn't and shouldn't call for formal wear, except on rare occasions) singing and dancing in suits and ties to "combat stereotypes," elicited enough excitement to go viral. It made people feel good to see these kids performing—literally—the myth that changing minds is as easy as changing clothes. It's why so much of the conversation around Trayvon Martin had to focus on disabusing people of the belief that his hoodie, not George Zimmerman's worldview, was what ultimately led to his death.
Maybe it's that, when we don't quite have our heads wrapped around the big picture of what's wrong—or if the big picture is simply too overwhelming or too depressing—we want to control what we can. Fastening a bow tie is a simple action that could feel like a temporary salve when it comes to the pain experienced by black men in this country. I can understand why someone might take comfort in this approach, can't you?
But the problem is that it's an approach fueled by a belief that's disturbing and, I'd argue, wrong: that is, the reason for racism is that black people—men in particular—don't look right or carry themselves properly. We know this isn't true.
Should you call a meeting with the principal and debate him on his mentoring strategy? I don't think so. You're unlikely to change his mind. Plus, you're right to consider that you, a nonblack person, might not be the ideal candidate to deliver a message about what black boys need.
But what you can do, hopefully, is supplement or maybe de-emphasize the principal's "Secure success by dressing like a dandy" perspective. In fact, maybe your semioutsider perspective means you are more free to operate unencumbered by racial shame and anxiety about how these boys are perceived, and instead can focus on their actual development: What are their individual talents and goals? What do they want to do (no, not "be successful" or "stay out of jail," but actually do—in the affirmative)? What do they understand about social justice, community involvement, and spiritual and emotional growth? Do they know what they're passionate about? (You know, all the things that kids in communities that aren't preoccupied with appearance-based discrimination get to do when they're that age.)
To deliver these messages, maybe you could start a new club. Maybe ask to contribute to the curriculum that already exists. Or maybe just focus on these things in your own individual interactions with the black male students, as well as in your conversations about their gifts, talents and individual personalities with the principal and other staff members.
Bottom line: Treat these students like people with potential, not problems that need to be repackaged. They can choose to keep the bow ties or take them off when they graduate—it really won't matter—but they'll take with them an all-too-rare message about their humanity.
The Root’s associate editor of features, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “Help! My Boss Things All Black Hairstyles Are Unprofessional”