Morehouse College is a small all-male college in Atlanta Georgia with 2,700 students. It has recently instituted a ban on women’s clothing, high heels, and carrying purses within its student body. Dr. William Bynum, vice president for Student Services reported that “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men.” CNN reports that the college has stated that those who are found breaking the policy will not be allowed to go to class unless they change. The school also reports that “chronic dress-code offenders could be suspended from the college.”
The policy details 11 expectations of students, including:
- 1. No caps, do-rags and/or hoods in classrooms, the cafeteria, or other indoor venues. This policy item does not apply to headgear considered as a part of religious or cultural dress.
- 2. Sun glasses or “shades” are not to be worn in class or at formal programs, unless medical documentation is provided to support use.
- 3. Decorative orthodontic appliances (e.g. “grillz”) be they permanent or removable, shall not be worn on the campus or at College-sponsored events.
- 4. Jeans at major programs such as, Opening Convocation, Commencement, Founder’s Day or other programs dictating professional, business casual attire, semi-formal or formal attire.
- 5. Clothing with derogatory, offensive and/or lewd messages either in words or pictures.
- 6. Top and bottom coverings should be work at all times. No bare feet in public venues.
- 7. No sagging–the wearing of one’s pants or shorts low enough to reveal undergarments or secondary layers of clothing.
- 8. Pajamas, shall not be worn while in public or in common areas of the College.
- 9. No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.
- 10. Additional dress regulations may be imposed upon students participating in certain extracurricular activities that are sponsored or organized by the College (e.g. athletic teams, the band, Glee Club, etc).
- 11. The college reserves the right to modify this policy as deemed appropriate.
Cameron Thomas-Shah, the student government co-chief of staff, has said that “The image of a strong black man needs to be upheld,” on the campus. And Bynum declares with certainty that the policy is needed by reporting that:
“We know the challenges that young African-American men face. We know that how a student dresses has nothing to do with what is in their head, but first impressions mean everything.”
Oh, gosh, where to begin with this one…
Stuart Hall, in his seminal work on social inequality and culture (titled Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices), defines how a sense of “othering” develops among more powerless groups when marked as “different” from (and often inferior to) dominant groups. “Othering” as you can see is a verb and refers to how powerless groups are marked and viewed as different and then frequently treated differentially by dominant groups on the basis of such markings. Marginalized groups, in turn, frequently come to see themselves as “different from” dominant groups and, at times, take on the qualities of dominant groups so as to assure that the possibilities for acceptance and upward mobility are not squelched within “mainstream society.” For African-American men in particular, as a response to having a lack of access to traditional means of masculinity (e.g. the occupational structure and mobility within it), scholars have further suggested that many African-American men adopt a “cool pose” that exaggerates attributes of masculine prowess (physicality and sexuality) to compensate for the lack of empowerment in other areas of their lives (Staples, 2006; Majors & Bilson, 1993; Messner, 1997). This process is said to be due to institutional and personal racism and discrimination which deny many African-American men traditional opportunities for masculine affirmation (e.g., education, employment, etc.). Behaviors to constitute hegemonic masculinity (the most dominant form of masculinity in a given period–often middle class and heterosexual), often include those that conform to gender role expectations that signify masculinity not only in the African-American community but broader society more generally.
This response may not be surprising given that historically, African-American manhood has been portrayed in racist ways as “problematic,” characterized by deviance, having a lack of social and familial responsibility, poverty, and sexual promiscuity. Concurrently, African-American sexuality has often been conceptualized as hypermasculine, hyperheterosexual, and aggressive (Ford et al., 2007) even when studies show that men frequently act in the opposite manner.
In the case of this particular news story, the response of the school represents precisely what the above scholars delineate. First, the school is “othering” classed signifiers of urban youth and the urban underclass (no “sagging pants” no “do rags,” no “shades”). It is also “othering” men who are (supposedly) not masculine, men who are not heterosexual, and men who dress casually (e.g. “unprofessionally”) at college events or common areas. In this way, dominant forms of masculinity are being embraced while “subordinated masculinities” (urban underclass, gay men) are being rejected and surveilled. The school is likely responding in this way because they want to ensure that African-American men, who have often been denied access to traditional structures can work within the current system and succeed (e.g. this is clear from the quotes from the administration such as “we know the challenges that African-American men face,” “first impressions mean everything,” and “the image of a strong black man needs to be upheld”). Simultaneously, however, the school is rejecting signifiers of “other” men so as to ensure that the privileges associated with dominant norms of masculinity are not lost on African-American men as a group. To accomplish this, the school is attempting to use clothing policies to erase signifiers of marginalized masculinities as a way to shore up access to the privileges that arise from “good impressions.”
While it is important for African-American men at this university or any university to succeed, these policies are discriminatory against feminine men, gay men, and men who signify non-dominant aspects of class relations. Other African-American scholars have shown how racist and classist ideologies are used to surveil the dress and actions of Black male basketball players in the NBA (Todd Boyd’s book Am I Black Enough For you?), the hair of African-American newscasters, and how homophobia is alive and well both inside of and outside of the African-American community.
Recently, David Love posted a follow-up article to the policies enacted at Morehouse College online titled “Morehouse dress code is more about homophobia than decorum,” and underscored that “the ban on women’s dress is, however, little more than a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay students. At best, it is a misplaced policy. At worst, it’s pure homophobia cloaked in official college stationery.”
Love goes on to report that “At a time when President Obama has announced his intention to repeal the military’s ban on openly gay servicemen and women, the school’s timing couldn’t have been more awkward. And in light of Congress recently passing a Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill to protect gay victims of violence, the Morehouse dress code is insensitive and anachronistic.”
It appears that Morehouse College can and should reconsider its othering and policing practices (despite its long list of classed signifiers that are on the prohibited dress code list, the school seems to then hone in on the fact that “we are talking about five students that are living a gay lifestyle”). Supporting dominant forms of gendered, racialized, and sexualized masculinities (heterosexual masculinities, middle class masculinities) and erasing subordinated masculinities (gay, working class, or urban underclass) whether this is through dress codes, hair styles, speech, or other social practices simply does not recognize that there are many acceptable ways to be a man–and many acceptable ways to be an African-American man in the United States. If stigma and discrimination are what Morehouse College wanted to teach its students about manhood through its public statements and its dress code policies, then they succeeded without question.
- Ford, C.R., Whetten, K.D., Hall, S.A., Kaufman, J.S., & Thrasher, A.D. (2007). Black sexuality, social construction, and research targeting “the down low” (the “DL”). Annuals of Epidemiology, 17, 209-216.
- Hall, S.(1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. New York: Sage Press.
- Majors, R., & Bilson, J.M. (1993). Cool Pose: The Dilemmas Of Black Manhood in America. NewYork: Touchstone Press.
- Messner, M.A. (1997). Masculinities: Men in Movements. Lanham, Maryland: Altamira Press.
- Staples R. (2006). Exploring Black Sexuality. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.