Since my husband died on December 17, 2018, after an 18 month battle with stage IV cancer, waking up in the morning—wanting to wake up in the morning—has been an excruciating trial by fire every single day.
I stretch my lips over my teeth in a mockery of a smile when I can. There are days that I manage to drive to the grocery store only to sit in the car, paralyzed with grief and anxiety because facing a world without him is too much. Most mornings, I frantically throw clothes in the washing machine for our three sons before I start running baths, taking out the trash, letting the dogs out, and making lunches. Of course, some of those things could be done the night before, but it’s easier said than done when you have a 6-year-old child asking “Where’s Daddy?” every hour on the hour, and it takes every ounce of strength you have just to will yourself to breathe.
Being at the boys’ respective schools before the bell rings, so that I don’t have to walk into the building and sign them in, has become my Holy Grail. Why? Because in the doing for my children, I often run out of the house looking like who did it and what for—and I feel the judgment even if no words are ever spoken.
Among the chipper, svelte, yoga pants wearing, latte-sipping stay-at-home-moms with hair carefully gathered at the napes of their necks, I am often the mom wearing my husband’s sweats, our eldest son’s shoes, a wrinkled t-shirt to match my haphazard hair, and an old jean jacket to (hopefully) cover the fact that I’m not wearing a bra.
Where was that thing anyway?
There will be a lot of discussions, as there should be, about the transparent respectability politics at play in the new parental dress code enacted at Houston’s James Madison High School. Principal Carlotta Outley Brown announced Tuesday that parents could no longer wear satin bonnets, head scarves, short shorts or dresses, sagging pants, leggings, low-cut tops, pajamas, pajama-like attire, or undershirts when on the school’s premises, or to any Madison High events on or off campus.
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 https://t.co/9spdYX1Wv2— Jamilah, Chief Feminazi from the US (@JamilahLemieux) April 24, 2019
In relaying this new world order, Brown’s tone is condescending, obnoxious, and paternalistic. If she could have typed her chastisement in all caps she probably would have. Like many other Black people who care a little too deeply about what white people think—Brown wants these parents who dare show their “behinds” to know that what they won’t do is come to her school and embarrass her. She throws around words like “prosperous” and “professional”—which exposes not only her flawed logic but her flawed politics—as if either of those things are promised to those who dress in a way deemed appropriate by her arbitrary rules. Being “prosperous” in a white supremacist, capitalist society is not the default measure of success, anyway; but based on the superficial nature of Madison High’s new parental dress code, that might be too deep of a possibility for Brown to even contemplate.
Even without knowing that the school is 44% Black, 55% Latinx, and less than one percent white, it is clear that the principal’s dress code was implemented for Black and Brown parents, specifically Black and Brown mothers. In her stated effort to set a high standard—her metrics for this high standard is unclear—for her students, she fails to take into consideration the humanity of the women she unabashedly frowns upon. Because, in her world, Black “behinds” in flannel are just too outrageous to let slide.
In the same way that some people rage against perceived lack of Black parental involvement at some extra-curricular activities—without uttering a word about the multiple jobs many Black mothers have to work in order to stay afloat in a white supremacist, misogynoirist economy—Brown has made a value judgment on not only these mothers’ circumstances, but on their characters and their bodies. She, like many other Black people, if the response to Madison’s dress code is any indication, have internalized the shame placed on our bodies. But the shame is not, nor has it ever been, ours.
Further, since when does wearing a bonnet prohibit mothers from being invested in their children’s future? Not any of the Black mothers I know. And certainly not any of the Black mothers I knew growing up who would not hesitate to come up to the school—wearing rollers and a house coat, if necessary—and raise hell to protect and defend their babies’ when administrators like Brown needed a clear reminder of exactly whose child they were dealing with.
I cannot imagine that the white mothers strolling around gentrified Brooklyn in bonnets to protect their expensive blow-outs and keratin treatments have been made to feel like a stain on polite society; in fact, in 2016, their shower caps were deemed a fashion trend.
There is not a day that goes by that I don’t see white mothers, babies in tow, in sheer leggings and some form of crop top. The general assumption is that they’re hitting the gym, while for Black mothers, it must mean that we just rolled out of bed. But Black women aren’t granted full access to humanity on our best days, let alone on our worst, are we? We have to fight for it. We don’t get to navigate the world less than perfect. We have to fight even for our vulnerability.
We don’t get to be late, to grieve, to mess up, to just be—unless, of course we’re wearing ”appropriate” clothing, then we might stand half of a corrupted chance.
This is not to say, of course, that every Black woman who walks into the school wearing a bonnet and leggings is experiencing some kind of deep trauma. They could just be dropping their children off before spending a leisurely day at home. They could be rushing to get their children to school before they have to rush back home before rushing to work. They could be too tired to prioritize their appearance.
Or…they could just be grown women minding their own grown woman business.
Brown does not know the interior lives of the Black and Brown parents who walk through the doors of Madison High School—and if her dress code is any indication, she doesn’t care. I wonder when she looks in the mirror—perfectly coiffed, business attire crisp, code-switch locked and loaded—does she feel more successful than the mother who struggled to wake up that morning. I wonder does she feel more invested in the future of other people’s children because she wouldn’t dare wear a bonnet in polite company. I wonder if she realizes how utterly ridiculous this dress code is.
These days, when the chaos of the morning has subsided and my children are all in school, I remind myself that I did it. Despite the pain squeezing what’s left of my heart, I did it—sometimes in leggings and no bra, sometimes in a hoodie and pajama pants. And I dare anyone to tell me that modeling grit, determination, and love in action is less important to my children’s personal and professional development than not wearing slippers in public. I wish they would.
Madison High’s new policy is classist, racist, gendered institutionalized violence enacted willfully and with flagrant disregard for the humanity of Black women, period.
In truth, the only “dress code” violation that should concern Brown at this point?
Her slip is showing.