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

October 11, 2013  |  


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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  • MM82

    I couldn’t imagine following a dress code in college. The most important thing in college is to go to class and learn something . I didn’t attend a HBCU because I was strongly discouraged by family members . I was told that a HBCU “A” would be seen as a “C” everywhere else. That I disagreed with, but I was also told that to get farther you have to learn how the other side thinks. I strongly believe that, although I’m always me, I can assimilate in any environment with ease.

  • Faith

    I still support HBCUs and we still need to support them financially. But in some cases it does take one person to mess up the dress code for everybody else. You are right, you don’t see some black student wear do rags, on white campus. But it sad that you do see it on some HBCUs campus. We do have to step our game up at HBCUs. HBCUs can compete against any big name or small name mainstream school hands down.

  • DC is Evil

    HBCUs lag way behind regular colleges, because HBCUs have incredibly LOW standards for incoming freshman. An NC Central, incoming freshman only needed a 1.5GPA out of high school, which is a D+.

    It’s time for the taxpayers to realize that tax dollars that go to HBCUs are a waste. These aren’t educational institutions as much as they are producers of low information.

  • As a PROUD graduate of Spelman College, articles like this bother me. Many of these HBCUs were founded on traditions and values that were created to make us better as a collective. Did I get aggravated when I couldn’t where my scarf to the cafe for breakfast, of course! However, I understand the big picture and that is why I do not run around the city with a bonnet on like I see so many other women do around Atlanta. HBCUs education go beyond the classroom. That is why there is a distinct difference between blacks that attend PWI and HBCUs. Especially, for my fellow AUC folks, we produce some of the top black leaders in the country. If you don’t like the traditions, then don’t attend the university.

    • MzPW

      I respect your opinion….however, when you state that there is a distinct difference between blacks that attend PWIs and HBCUs, that comes off a bit judgmental. I graduated from one of the top 20 PWIs in this country and I thank God I had the opportunity to attend; like you, I’m sure, I have a great amount of pride in my university and would not opt to attend anywhere else. I learned many of the same lessons you seemed to have learned, such as the appropriateness of wearing head scarfs and bonnets in public. Like you, my education stretched WAY beyond the classroom. Like your school, my school was also founded upon great tradition and boasts a great history. Guess what? some of the greatest Black leaders came from my institution as well (the University of Michigan). So how do we differ from one another?

      I can’t really speak on the dress codes and other restrictions that may be present at certain HBCUs, but please believe that those rules certainly DO exist at PWIs as well. It isn’t a matter or racial difference; it’s a matter of professionalism. I’m in support of HBCUs, although a larger university was a better fit for me. And no, I don’t see a difference in the preparation and/or professionalism of students that choose to attend different types of universities. Seems to me that issues such as image, professionalism, and preparation for the work place requires a student to put forward their best effort to leave a mark, do the research, and prepare as much as possible regardless of what a school’s administration puts forward, policy-wise. As you said before, “If you don’t like the traditions, then don’t attend the university.”

  • sixfourfella

    So I guess that these HBCU’s should say, You know what, forget, let the kids wear what they want to wear,,sag, lewd t-shirts,cross dress, do what ever they like cuz they will be ok after they leave here,, why do people find it hard to follow the rules of something that will help the majority later,,, I got an example, I went to a state university and over the summer, my friends dad works at a city college, so couple of us can hoop in the gym on saturdays, at my college, I could wear my hat all day if I chose to, but immediately at the city junior college we have to remove the hats asap,,and show id,, and answer numerous questions,, I understand cuz what the few fools in the past messed it up for the majority,, just like the airports,, once you were able to see a love one off right at the gate and watch their plane takeoff,, but the few messed it up for the majority,, so this is why HBCU’s are doing this,, it’s for the better not worst,,pull up your pants,, comb your hair, look presentable, you don’t know whom you will meet, you get one chance to make a good first pression.

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  • Rachel Davis

    What did Olivia Pope’s dad say on the season premiere of Scandal? We have to be TWICE as good as they are to get HALF of what they have. I agree with the dress codes & hair policies.

  • shanita

    …the ‘hallow’ ground of DSU will never be overlooked or compromised. So long as the great Lookerman Hall remains in tact…with pieces of the original underground railroad still there to this day.

  • shanita

    Never had these issues at DSU. I am proud to have attended an HBCU. But I do question the intentions of this article. Especially it’s publication conveniently placed during homecoming season. There are FAR more important issues to address. Nationally and globally. And I learned that valuable jewel of knowledge in college…at an HBCU. DELAWARE STATE UNIVERSITY BABY!!!

  • Grace

    @Bossip uhh as a HU grad, I agree the headscarf thing is wrong … But HBCUs will never be the same..bc they are teaching us to compete for jobs and careers among other cultures.. Yes be yourself but know.. The real world is judgmental just as the person that wrote this is judgmental about the “dress code”. You don’t need to have your breasts chest and butt showing at all times!

  • Willie Lump Lump

    Some HBCUs just don’t want their students looking like thugs and hoes. There’s nothing wrong with them encouraging a professional image.

  • N. howall

    I’d remove the line about lesbians at Morehouse. There are none. It’s an all-male school.

    • hollyw

      I think they by “cross-dressing”, they were referring to transexuals

  • Courtney Banks

    Anything to appease Massa huh?

  • Trisha_B

    In regards to the girl who had to get permission to wear her hijab at HU, it wasnt about walking on campus with one. It was about wearing it for her school id. Everyone knows your not suppose to wear a hat or scarf or anything on your head when you take a photo id. So when she went to take her school id picture, the person said they needed proof that it was for religious purposes. She just converted to the Muslim religions. So people are gonna ask questions. Plus she wasnt wearing the head scarf in the traditional way, she was wearing it how a lot of girls are wearing the scarves today, in a turban style. It wasnt about discrimination or a dress code violation on the hbcu campus

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  • Tufanna Thomas

    This is actually bashing HBCUs, and I didn’t even go to one. But MOST universities have dress codes and some PWI are just as strict. And it has nothing to do with blacks being conservative. Blacks aren’t competing well because they don’t know how to present themselves well. Time and time again, I interview people, especially the younger folks and they come in with blue and pink hair, club clothes, chewing gum, using slang and think they are supposed to represent the company like that! College should be preparing folks for what it is like in the professional world and wearing do rags, head wraps, grills and twerking aren’t for the work place unless you are working in an industry that it is acceptable. Employers have dress codes! Get real ya’ll! I haven’t been in a hospital, court room, or board room that allows do rags, grills or even noticable tattoos. If you think HBCUs are hard on you, wait until you get into the working world! Save the things you like to do for your personal time, it is what it is!

    • adiatc

      You are absolutely right!!! My people kill me with this mess. We represent 13% of the entire population of this country and think that everyone else is supposed to cater to us all of the time! Whether you work in the private/public sector, you will have to represent that company. And the company nor the company’s clients want to see your pants sagging or hear incorrect English!! Period!! The same would ring true if you own your own business and wanted to cater to more that our 13%.

      Any time you are a minority, you will have to in some way assimilate to the majority culture to survive or you will be an outcast! Why is it that immigrants of all races have the ability to do that and still hold on to who there are? And black Americans can’t seem to do that!!

      Furthermore, with being descendants of African kings and queens, all we can come up with is do rags, sagging pants and grills as our displays of cultural expressions? What a group of lost people we are!!

      • Child_Puhleez


  • Jenny

    I applaud the person for who wrote this piece. I am a junior at Spelman College and I agree with the article. Spelman College is in the Atlanta University Center which consists of Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morris Brown. At the current moment Morehouse and Spelman College students are facing the issue about what is deem appropriate for blacks at the campus. The administration have restricted what type of music that we can listen to, what should, and anything that seem inappropriate to guest (people who do not understand African American Heritage). They also brought in people who never went to a HBCU in the administration which are trying to make the schools like a PWI ( Private/Public White Institution).

    • hollyw

      That’s crazy. As a late 20-something who already navigated a private university, I implore you to stick to your core values and common sense. Higher learning is about national and world affairs, not head scarves and gold grills.

    • Yes I don’t like this. They are killing all of our traditions and what the school was based on.

  • Southern Belle

    HBCUS stay losing except for Moorehouse and Spelman. Thank god I’m not getting my degree from one,I’ll be getting mine from a PWI.

    • hollyw

      What’s PWI?

      • AnonyChick

        Predominantly White Institution.

    • Speaking like this, is why we can’t have solid Black institutions and businesses, because many just have the mentaility of if it’s not white it’s not right. SMH.

    • Blackhawk

      i doubt HBCU’s would want a koon such as urself attending their fine institutions

  • Frank Morales

    This is just another case of black people having power and authority ,and not using it right.Blacks are the main offenders when it comes to hating one self and one’s race.It Willie Lynch rules in full effect. I am the product of a Puerto Rican father and Black-American mother.My hispanic side never has issues like that.Only issues we share :drugs,crime,gun violence and Racism.

    • perfectly imperfect

      I find that very hard to believe. My father is Dominican and they are very color struck. My dads wife is Puerto Rican and they are the same way. She told my children to stay out of the sun because we are already black enough.

      • hollyw

        I was just about the same thing, in NY, some Hispanics are worse than Blacks about the skin color…we all just need to get over it.

        • perfectly imperfect

          I concur!

      • MrCubano

        I agree with you. Both my parents are Cuban and Latino are very color struck. I remember the first thing my parents taught me when I came to USA was never date a Black person, funny thing is both my parents are Brownskin Latinos(Afro-Cubans). We having a saying in Cuba it’s called Mejora De la Raza” Improving the breed” but that didn’t work out cause all my GF have been Black or Afro-Latina.

        • perfectly imperfect

          My dad is still mad to this day that I didn’t marry a Boriquo. My maternal side is black and they hated me for being lightskinned and I was just barely light enough for my Latino side. He has only seen my children 3 times and he won’t even speak to my husband.

          • MrCubano

            That is so sad to hear. My family regrets that I date Black girls. They fine if a date a Black Latina but if she African American they hate it. I never understood because we are descendants from Africans also.

            • perfectly imperfect


  • hollyw

    WOW. That’s crazy. I had no idea it was that serious on-campus. Isn’t college supposed to have the exact opposite mindset…even private ones? Plus, how much of the population is wearing grills and du-rags, anyway?! I can respect a dress code in elementary and high school; the state is paying, but w/as much money college costs nowadays, and ESPECIALLY the lack of scholarships HBCUs provide most students, this is kind of outrageous.

    …and no head scarves?! Am I the only one confused? Aren’t colorful scarves a uniquely African-centric accessory already? How is that not respectable?? And “no cross-dressing” lmbo, come on man, we all know this targets one sub-sect of one group. Just silly.

    • perfectly imperfect

      I went to CAU (Clark Atlanta University). We had a dress code and code of conduct and ALL freshmen were required to attend at least one or more Convocations to pass Freshmen Seminar. I went to a predominately black private Christian school so this was not a problem for me, but my atheist, Muslim, and Jehovah’s witness’ classmates they found this to be a bit of a predicament. Its was waaaaay worse at Spelman and Morehouse. Their indoctrination was upsurd at times. It was like the “Upper Eschaelon(sic) Movement” of the forties with the paper bag tests.

      • It definitely is not that bad.

        • perfectly imperfect

          My opinion. …

      • hollyw

        I believe it.

      • Ms_Sunshine9898

        I went to Howard for a year, and I swear it was wide open, freedom of expression. But when I’d visit my friend at the AUC, she’d be like girl you can’t wear that on campus, you’ll get me in trouble!

  • Tonyoardee

    Black people are thee most socially conservative folks on this earth.. from the Caribbean all the way back to Africa, we need to get with the times if we are to ever excel in this fast paced society; Its like Gentrification.. upgrade or get left in the dust

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    • Nigg.Newton


      Just remember, not only are HBCU’S having it hard right now. BUT ALL colleges are having it hard, Traditionally White Schools are not doing much better.

      The WRITER of this article sounds like a CLOWN…Anyone that has gone to a Black College, knows imagine is important. YOU are at a PRIVATE COLLEGE not public.

      Common Sense is a good thing.

      • Guest

        Yes, “imagine” is indeed very important. Lol