Dress Codes, Black Respectability & What’s Keeping HBCUs From Moving Ahead

October 11, 2013  |  

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As a proud graduate of Virginia Union University, an HBCU, I have to admit that there are some times when these institutions really disappoint me.

The story of Melona Clark is one of those occasions. According to the Huffington Post, Clark, a student at Hampton University in Virginia, has been forced to carry papers at all times, proving she is a real Muslim – and not just some tacky handkerchief head mammy, with a penchant for colorful headscarves. From the Huffington Post:

Clark, a student at Hampton University in Virginia, was forced by the school to obtain a letter from her chaplain and a letter from her mosque before the university would allow her to wear her headscarf on campus, local news outlet WTKR-TV reported on Friday.“If I am ever stopped and asked who I am … I want to have all the proof that I can that I am a student here,” she told the station when asked about why she carries the official papers with her everywhere she goes. “I don’t want to have to go through anything like I went through in the first place.

The University’s stance is that unauthorized headscarves violate the school’s Dress Code: Procedures for Cultural or Religious Head Coverings Students policy, which request that students wanting to wear headscarves on campus must first seek, “approval to wear headgear as an expression of religious or cultural dress may make a written request for a review through the Office of the Chaplain.” In terms of police practice, it makes sense but the bigger question is why does a university need to regulate the dress of young adults at all – other than ensuring folks have on top and a bottom?

Clark is not the only student at Hampton University raising questions about the legitimacy of a student dress code. A couple of years ago, the dress code at Hampton University M.B.A program found itself in the national spotlight for its ban on cornrows and dreadlocks for male business students. And just a few months ago, during an orientation meeting for freshmen, Hampton female students were lectured through a power point presentation about the Dangers of Twerking.” And by danger, HU really meant from the school itself, who was threatening stiff school penalties for anyone found twerking anywhere out in public.

Black colleges and universities, particularly the institutions located in the South, have long been notoriously known for their cultural conservativeness. During my term at Union, which lasted from 1995 through 2000, the school’s administration at the time put all sorts of, what most in the student body felt were unreasonable and invasive, restrictions on our movements and interactions on campus – including prohibiting the opposite sex in dorm rooms; dorm curfew times and non Union people at on-campus events including parties. This while our black friends and fellow college students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and other schools got to do whatever the hell they wanted. And although there were no outright restrictions on dress, it was drilled in our heads through tone and actual words what was considered fashionable for young black men and women. Therefore, Hampton’s student body is not alone in its adherence to black respectability.

In fact, in 2007 the newly appointed president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas announced that he was instituting a dress code in order to help uplift the institution,”riddled in mediocrity.” And in 2009,Morehouse College enacted its new “Appropriate Attire Policy,” which among other things, outlawed saggy pants, mouth grills, do-rags, lewd t-shirts and cross-dressing. The latter of which drew all sorts of ire from the university’s gay and lesbian student body. In fact, while most historically and predominately white colleges and universities hold no such restrictions (with the exception of religious-based colleges and universities) and students are free to discover, innovate and express themselves style-wise, it is the HBCUs, that still preach the message that conformity and obedience is the ticket to success.

Listen, as private institutions, which many HBCUs, continue to be, they are well within their rights to govern student body behavior as they so please. However I feel that the universities do themselves no favors with these archaic and often counterproductive rules. Not at a time when many HBCUs find themselves at the peril financially and are questioning if their hallow grounds will be around into the future.

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