Armed with nothing but an incurable yawn, I greet the students entering my urban high school in a residential neighborhood of Boston at 7:30, as I do every morning. My welcome is warm but brief—neither of us wants too much of a back and forth this early in the morning. I am friendly and approachable, but serious and already hard at work: I am the Dean of Student and School Culture, tasked with enforcing the school’s dress code, and I am scanning each student for compliance.
The students need to wear either a dress shoe or black sneaker, khakis or dress pants, and a school logo-emblazoned polo, sweater, or fleece. Meanwhile, I’m dressed in a well-worn flannel that I myself wore over a dozen years ago in high school. Other mornings, I’ll be in a millennial-meets-Tony Soprano button-up I snagged for a few bucks at the thrift shop, or just whatever’s at the top of the laundry pile. I feel almost hypocritical.
Inevitably, a few students are out of the dress code. Some are in Crocs. Some have elaborately colored and expensive Jordans. Some in Ugg boots. They typically have excuses, or even changes of clothes on hand. I can work with that. But the one infraction that denies a student entry into the building these days is a maskless face. I work primarily with students of color from financially limited backgrounds, and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant financial and emotional impact on many of the families I serve. As my colleagues and I encourage students and their families to get vaccinated, it remains essential that our school community continue to mask up daily in our classroom settings to avoid any potential outbreaks or breakthrough cases. So we’ve added masks to the dress code.
Generally speaking, we maintain a dress code because it helps create a unified school identity. Additionally, it helps our students to be recognizable and valued members of the local Boston community whenever they’re off campus. There’s a trade-off, of course: as any kid will tell you, dress-code conformity can often come at the cost of individualism and creative expression. Many fail to realize the extent to which the tools of education—teaching, uniforms, the delicate interplay of rules and personal expression—were used to forcibly assimilate Native Americans in the Allotment and Assimilation Era around the turn of the 20th century. And while I’ve got plenty of history with—and plenty of opinions about—dress codes, I’ve found that our new mask policy has put the whole idea into a new light. Merging the dress code with a public health policy has helped me see how a dress code might be deployed for noble purposes—and how a fair dress code, when properly applied, can illustrate how broad the definition of “professional” should be.
School uniforms have followed me throughout most of my academic and professional life. And when you have to wear a uniform, you become keenly attuned to its gradations—what it allows you to be, and what not. In kindergarten and first grade I attended a blazer-shirt-and-tie private school, then during 2nd through 8th grade I donned a relaxed or long-sleeve polo and sweater combination.
During those early years, I struggled with my sense of belonging. As a Black person attending predominantly white private institutions, it was vanishingly rare to have interactions with adults who looked like me. I found myself blending in, mostly. My dull uniform helped me escape the eyes and judgements of those who perceived and understood me to be different, but did not yet have the language to articulate it. The look helped indoctrinate me into the school system, but didn’t get me any closer to a sense of who I was. (My very presence, uniform and all, also added to the school’s “inclusive” reputation.) I was able to benefit from all that the school provided—so long as I dressed how they wanted me to, and kept my hair styled in a way they deemed socially acceptable. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even know I could grow loccs until I was a young adult.