This week Madison High School in Houston instituted a new dress code policy—for parents.
Principal Carlotta Outley Brown sent a letter to parents on April 9 in which she outlined the new guidelines, and the stipulations immediately struck both local leaders and activists on social media as racist.
"No one can enter the building or be on the school premises wearing a satin cap or bonnet on their head for any reason," Outley Brown wrote. “You also cannot wear a shower cap of any kind in the building.” In addition, the school banned: hair rollers, "pajamas of any kind," jeans that are ripped to show too much skin, "leggings that are showing your bottom and where your body is not covered from the front or the back," low-cut or revealing tops, "sagging pants," and short shorts and minidresses.
The rationale, according to Outley Brown's letter? "To prepare our children and let them know daily, the appropriate attire they are supposed to wear when entering a building, going somewhere, applying for a job, or visiting someone outside of the home setting." If the parents don't follow the rules, she added, they will not be allowed inside the building. The Washington Post reports that the incident that spurred action from the school was a parent who arrived in a T-shirt dress and headscarf.
The outrage was swift; the new guidelines reek of racial undertones and class bias. Women of color in particular wear headwraps and scarves either as an aesthetic choice or a part of their hair care routines. "Having body parts exposed is one thing. Turning someone away because their hair's in rollers...is a little ridiculous," Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers told CNN. "This is an issue of a principal issuing a dictatorial edict rather than having substantive conversation. Some of that stuff seems a little classist."
On social media, the reaction was just as harsh, with parents pointing out that the dress code implies that some parents are better or more "appropriate" than others, simply on the basis of what they wear. "On today a high school in Houston, TX set this dress code for PARENTS. The other photo is the Principal who set the new rules," activist Leslie Mac wrote on Twitter. "Reminder you can be Black and still create, write, enact & enforce anti-Black policies. nothing going wrong in that school has any connection to bonnets." (Principal Outley Brown is African American.)
"I have on one of these banned items nearly every day at drop-off and often at pick-up. Am I not mom? Am I not a mother who kids in the school community should respect or even admire? This is the most racist/classist ish ever," writer and activist Jamilah Lemieux tweeted. "No one would ever create such a dress code for class mobile moms who often wear the same sort of stuff, and the fact that so many of y’all are okay with the idea of instituting rules that are exclusive to folks that are/perceived to be poor or 'low class' is just...."
As the dress code story went viral, others agreed.
The bottom line is parents who want to participate in their children's education and be present at school shouldn't be punished for aesthetic choices that a principal doesn't agree happen to agree with. And when a set of policies seems to penalize black women in particular, that should raise a particular alarm.