I Am a Black Teacher and I Wear Ralph Lauren. Does That Make Me a Gang Member?

As a teacher, I am always professional with my students. When it comes to how I dress, however, my professional self and my casual self merge. This creates a connection between me and my students because dressing outside of standard teacher attire allows them to see me as a human being and not just their teacher. Monday through Thursday I wear business casual, but on Fridays, I typically opt for a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt and match it with a pair of Air Jordan’s. I hear, “Ms. Green, I like your shoes,” all day as I walk down the hall. To us, these brands are just a part of our style, or “drip” as my students would say. To some in our schools and to our local law enforcement, however, these brands are an indication of gang involvement.

In October 2021, a local police department facilitated a professional development session with their local district faculty entitled “Gangs/Guns/ Drug Prevention and Awareness.” During the presentation, educators were given tips on how to identify aspects of gang culture. Then they were explicitly informed to look at the brand names of students' clothing, including Jordan, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Hustle Gang Clothing (a brand designed by rapper TI), as well as apparel from the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Soxs sports teams, all of which are widely known and worn in the Black community.

Dress codes remain a contentious topic in public schools, as school staff, students, and families struggle to agree on what is considered appropriate attire for school. Commonly, uniform policies are enforced in predominantly white private schools and urban schools serving Black and brown students to create a “respectable” look. Respectable according to whom? While dress codes are supposedly a neutral policy, established to create a safe environment and minimize distractions, they are rooted in Eurocentric standards and norms of respectability, which inequitably impact many students. Many dress code policies and the associated consequences in fact disrupt learning and are discriminatory against students' race, gender, and cultural expressions, denying them opportunities to represent their culture.

In some schools, if students are out of compliance with the dress code, they are likely to be sent home for the remainder of the day or given more punitive consequences, including suspension and expulsion, ultimately widening the opportunity gap and systemically contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Thus, the message our students receive is that their culture is not valued in their school, further disengaging them from learning. This injustice by design is particularly damaging to Black male students, who are being blatantly targeted by law enforcement in their community and teachers in their classrooms.

At my school and within my classroom, I always find ways to affirm my students by taking interest in their interests, understanding what is “in style,” and simply providing compliments when students express themselves through their clothing. As long as my students are not wearing anything that truly affects teaching and learning, they should not be targeted or reprimanded for their style of choice. How can students of color enjoy learning if we require them to omit important parts of themselves when they come to school?

Rather than dictate what students should and shouldn’t wear, let’s involve them in the development of dress code policies. Schools should create a dress code committee with staff, students, and members of the community to ensure that the dress codes are equitable and unbiased. This will also give students a sense of ownership within their school.

Next, school faculty and police officers should be required to take diversity and inclusion training, specifically on how to identify their racial stereotypes and biases and anti-harassment at least once a year.

Finally, police officers should partner with community leaders and local agencies to combat the root causes that fuel gang affiliation, such as poverty and lack of enriching youth programs. There are structural changes that we can make to ensure that programs are available for youth to productively spend their time, be it in the form of extracurricular activities, trade programs, after-school programs, or additional academic support.

I believe that our classrooms should serve as a microcosm of the world we wish to live in, not our current reality. This means eliminating the stereotypes placed on Black students and creating an environment where Black students are encouraged to show up as their authentic selves and are supported and affirmed throughout their education.

Iesha Green is a fifth grade multi-subject teacher at Brady Elementary in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellow.

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