Black Girls Are Often Targets of Strict Dress Codes, But Now They're Pushing Back

A new report on school dress codes in Washington D.C. shows that students of color are more negatively affected than their white peers, but some students are advocating for changes to their schools' policies.

students walking into school
Photo: PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty Images

Across the United States, school dress codes have long excluded, scrutinized, and punished female students, but a new report shows black girls are being targeted at disproportionate rates.

The report, by the National Women’s Law Center, on D.C. schools showed common problems in school dress codes and shared the stories of local parents and teachers who are seeking change.

Of the 29 schools surveyed, many scored poorly: 12 received an F- on dress code measures. The policy measures assessed included restrictions on sleeve types, length of skirts and shorts, limitations on leggings, and bans on headwraps—all restrictions that often affect black girls more than other students—and punishments for dress code infractions.

I know this struggle all too well. From elementary to high school, I was regularly drilled on the consequences of coming to school outside of the approved dress code parameters. Those who maintained a good relationship with the school faculty might get anything from a verbal warning to an alternate outfit. Those who didn't, risked a parent phone call, in-school suspension or worse, being sent home. Students—myself included—were banned from the classroom for offenses as small as not having a belt or refusing to tuck a shirt in "properly."

The truth was though, the issue was much bigger than me.

Double Jeopardy

So how do these dress codes specifically affect black girls? The report found that high schools where black students make up more than half of the student population have more dress code restrictions than other high schools. And black girls must also navigate the extra scrutiny female students often face for skirt length, strap width, and fabric tightness.

Nearly half of the schools surveyed banned hair wraps, hats, or other hair coverings. The authors wrote in the report, "School policies that ban styles like hoodies and hair wraps—and school administrators that disproportionately punish Black students for dress code infractions—reinforce the same stereotypes by communicating that students’ authentic selves are incompatible with success."

Duke Ellington School of the Arts student Ayiana Davis said she and classmates had a "headwrap clap-back" where students wore head wraps, bonnets, or durags to make the point that the accessories didn't impact their ability to study and wasn't "unprofessional."

Dress Code Violation's Impact

“I think a lot of people just got really fed up with the fact that they were being dress coded every single day for something that their white counterparts would not be getting dress coded for," Chloe Pine, a student at the School Without Walls High School, said in the report.

In the report, Capital City Public Charter School student Keontria Wainwright said she and a friend interviewed fellow black and Hispanic girl classmates for a documentary to "show how girls have been pulled out of class, expelled, and put out of school for two days because they didn’t comply with dress code or broke dress code rules.”

The report shows that students of color are removed from class or suspended more often than white students, punishments that can lead to reduced attendance, worsening grades, and damage to teenager's permanent record—highlighting the importance of equitable dress code rules.

Finding Solutions

More than half the schools also had rules about the tightness of clothing, which can make students with curvier body shapes undue targets. Diedre L. Neal, the principal of Alice Deal Middle School, worked with students and parents to change the school's dress code.

“I think there was a tendency for school staff to equate the dress code with how other people would react. So, some staff members would say, ‘You can’t wear leggings because boys might A, B, or C,'” Neal said in the report.

Alice Deal Middle School removed language from the dress code that blamed girls for "distracting" boys and added a rule protecting students from being removed from class for dress code violations. And they also allowed hair wraps, hats, and scarves.

The writers of the report hope other schools will follow suit.

“We don't need to conform to anybody’s rules," 17-year-old Wainwright said in the report. "We need to come together again and just love each other, learn to love ourselves, our wraps, our scarves, and our curls.”

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