Morehouse College: What a drag!

The all-male, historically African-American college's new dress code bans students from wearing women's clothing

By Judy Berman

Published October 19, 2009 5:20PM (EDT)

Looking back on some of things I thought were a good idea to wear in college, I have to cringe. Culled mostly from thrift stores, my wardrobe involved everything from layered slips worn as skirts to a garish pair of faux snakeskin boots with 4-inch platform heels. For a while, my personal motto was, "Every day is Halloween." But now that the slips have disintegrated and I only keep the shoes around for costume parties, I wouldn't trade my memories (or photos!) of the fun I had in them for the world. College is a time -- and, for some, the only time, between the parental regime of childhood and the repressive dictates of the working world -- to figure out who we are and will be, to push our self-images to their logical extreme, just to see what sticks. Clothing is a small but essential part of that process.

That's why it's so disheartening to hear that Morehouse College, an all-male, historically African-American school in Atlanta, has instituted a dress code banning this kind of experimentation. The "Appropriate Attire Policy" dictates that students refrain from wearing caps, do-rags, sagging pants, "clothing with derogatory or lewd messages either in words or pictures" and sunglasses ("in class or at formal programs"). Most controversial is the college's decision to outlaw "clothing usually worn by women (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsored events."

Now, a few of these guidelines make sense: It's disrespectful to wear sunglasses in the classroom, where you're expected to be paying attention to the professor and participating in a discussion with classmates. And depending on how "clothing with derogatory or lewd messages" is defined (and who defines it), that may also be a wise call. But what about the do-rags, sagging pants and ladies' clothing? Who is that hurting?

Well, for one thing, the drag ban isn't aimed at what you might assume: preventing frat bros from their typical, occasionally minorly offensive, homecoming-season cross-dressing high jinks. CNN quotes Dr. William Bynum, Morehouse's vice-president for student services, as saying, "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." Bynum also claims that, when he discussed the new policy with Safe Space, the college's gay group, "Of the 27 people in the room, only three were against it." It's interesting, then, that Safe Space's co-president, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, calls the drag ban discriminatory. In fact, he says, "Some believe that this restriction is what the entire policy is correlated around." It's notable that while most items on the list are banned solely in academic or public buildings, it is now impermissible for Morehouse students to dress in women's clothing anywhere on campus -- even in the privacy of their own dorm rooms.

Bynum claims that the "Appropriate Attire Policy" is designed to help Morehouse "get back to the legacy" of educating "Renaissance men." And Cameron Thomas-Shaw, the student government's co-chief of staff, tells the Journal-Constitution, "The image of a strong black man needs to be upheld ... And if anyone sees this policy as something that is restrictive then maybe Morehouse is not the place for you." While Thomas-Shaw is the most explicit about the connection between the dress code and race, the subtext about Morehouse educating "strong black men" is ubiquitous in stories about the ban. So we're not just talking about masculinity here -- we're talking about black masculinity, a topic that has fueled controversy over everything from Tyler Perry films to Barack Obama. It is, to say the least, a sensitive subject.

And, as the other stipulations of the Morehouse dress code illustrate, ideas about what black masculinity should entail don't just cut one way. The school won't allow black men to feminize themselves by wearing makeup, but it also views sagging pants and do-rags -- that is, articles that connote violent, hyper-masculine gang or thug culture -- as inappropriate. A respectable black man, Morehouse seems to be saying, can't be too feminine or too tough. The college isn't just banning items of clothing; it is, in effect, proscribing entire identities.

As Queerty points out, a school that brags about having graduated Martin Luther King Jr. may want to reconsider its stance on censorship: "Is wearing pumps in class really going to distract from academia? Only if Morehouse contributes to a campus that ostracizes those individuals. Or they could teach tolerance and acceptance. You know, like that Martin Luther King Jr. fella." As America continues to make progress on racial issues, we need to broaden our understanding of what a black man is and should be. Morehouse's mission, to educate the next generation of African-American leaders, is laudable. But until the school acknowledges that those leaders may be rocking a do-rag or carrying a purse, it won't be fully embracing the diversity it champions.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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