Over the past year, The Root and The Glow Up have reported on any number of restrictive school dress codes. Recently in Houston, a local high school principal has sparked controversy with its new rules for parents. As the Houston Chronicle reported, in an April 9th letter to parents (pdf), Carlotta Outley Brown of James Madison High School outlined a dress code for parents entering the school’s campus:
James Madison High School will turn away parents if they show up at the school wearing bonnets, pajamas, hair rollers or leggings, among other clothing items, according to a memo signed by the school’s new principal, Carlotta Outley Brown. The new parent dress code is posted on the front page of the school’s website.
As reported by KPRC, Outley Brown’s letter was sent following the denial of a parent seeking to enroll her child, due to her attire. James Madison parent Joselyn Lewis told the station she was turned away at the school’s office on April 8 for wearing a t-shirt dress and headscarf, told by school officials that her clothing was inappropriate. Thinking she may have been mistaken for a student, Lewis clarified that she was a parent—and was told the dress code applied to her, as well.
“We are preparing your child for a prosperous future,” Principal Outley Brown wrote in her letter, asking that parents help set the tone for acceptable attire. “We want them to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for any setting they might be in.”
Though on the surface it may not seem an outrageous request to ask parents to lead by example, Outley Brown’s request instantly raised questions of respectability politics among parents and outsiders alike. Compounding the issue is the fact that, as noted by local station KTRK, the new rules only apply to a single school with majority brown, black and low-income students—and presumably also parents, according to the Houston Independent School District.
“I’m almost insulted,” parent Tomiko Miller told the Chronicle. “I really think it was discriminatory, the language that was used. It was demeaning. And I’m African American ... [I]f it’s misty outside and I have a hair bonnet on, I don’t see how that’s anyone’s business.”
Houston Federation of Teachers president Zeph Capo also took umbrage with Outley Brown’s missive, telling the Chronicle that her new mandates smacked of classism.
“I’m sorry—this principal may have plenty of money and time to go to the hairdresser weekly and have her stuff done,” he said. “Who are you to judge others who may not have the same opportunities that you do? Having a wrap on your head is not offensive. It should not be controversial.”
Similarly, local Houston City Council candidate Ashton P. Woods felt the rules were elitist, calling for Outley Brown’s firing—and subsequently sparking a backlash from many of his followers.
Still, others felt the new policies virulently anti-black—and even anti-working parent, as noted by at least one highly successful work-from-home mom.
But unlike many other administrators who have come under fire for what appear to be racially-charged policies in marginalized communities, Outley Brown is both African American and an alum of the high school she now runs. Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, she defended her new rules by explaining that parents had shown up at the school wearing “risque clothes.”
“They were coming in a manner that was not presentable for the educational setting,” she said.
And with Outley Brown’s online detractors are also supporters, many of whom believe our standards need to be raised, if only for the sake of setting an example for generations to come.
So, is it a matter of respectful attire, or respectability politics? That issue is still up for debate; but as of press time, Outley Brown’s new rules still stand.
Updated: Friday, 4/26/19 at 7:09 p.m., ET: Principal Outley Brown appeared on Inside Edition to defend her new policy, saying: “I felt the need to enact the dress code because it was an educational environment, a place of learning. ... When anyone walks in, we have impressionable children and we have to model what we want them to know and learn.”