Written by Serie McDougal
Recently, Tom Weathersby of the Mississippi state House of Representatives proposed a bill. It recommends a new law that would impose fines and psychological counseling for people who sag their pants. This article contains thoughts about what this bill means for young Black males. To be in violation of the law, one has to sag their pants in ways that expose underwear or body parts in an “indecent or vulgar manner.” The ambiguity of this phrase invites what is known as aversive racism. The theory of aversive racism assumes, for example, that in situation where evaluation criteria is unclear, Whites will typically treat African Americans with negative bias (i.e., stop and frisk laws) (Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2000). This proposal could be, at once, the continuity of White cultural racism and trickle down cultural chauvinism in the time of Donald Trump. Cultural chauvinism, goes beyond the recognition of cultural difference, toward to punishment of difference and elevation of one’s own cultural preferences as a default societal standard. This has been the White supremacist orientation toward African American styles for hundreds of years. Yet, in a way that might be considered strange, Whites have described African American cultural styles as wild, barbaric, and indecent (blues, rap, Ebonics, dance), yet also expressed deep admiration of those styles, expressed through imitation, appropriation, and commodification of them. The cultural chauvinism that President Donald Trump has shown the world, may be trickling down to the state and local levels or simply emboldening already existing White cultural racism. Tom Weathersby’s prejudice against certain styles of clothes, such as sagging pants, will be institutionalized into law if the bill is passed. But what do clothes mean?
Generally, clothes can simply represent style, but they can also be used to tell elaborate stories about culture and identity. African Americans have used clothing to symbolize, attitudes, values, interests, affiliation, pride, and identity (Andrews & Majors, 2004, p.326). From zoot suits to traditional African garments, African American men have developed unique ways of dressing to express themselves and distinguish themselves (Franklin, 2004). During slavery, Black men used the clothes available to them to create their own styles. This is, in part, a way of expressing themselves on their own terms and enhancing self-image while society attempts to make them invisible (Majors & Billson, 1992; Franklin, 2004). Black male clothing trend-setting has taken common items such as stocking caps or do-rags, bandanas, and plain white t-shirts to the point that they have been commodified and transformed into mainstream symbols of masculinity. Yet, their styles have also been criminalized and marketed. The hip hop industry has garnered millions of dollars by transforming Black male clothing styles into designer apparel.
Sagging pants is one of many culturally influenced behaviors such as playing the dozens, clothing styles, rapping, and using slang. However, for Black males these are not just innocent stylistic choices, they can be life-threatening (for example, Trayvon Martin). Black parents recognize this and send messages to their sons in preparation for bias, which is a racial socialization practice that between two-thirds and 90% of African American parents engage in. These parents make their children aware of racism and prepare them with strategies for how to handle it. They may engage in telling their sons to “be on time, to avoid wearing sagging pants or hoodies, and to work extra hard” (Brewster, Stephenson & Beard, 2014, p.97). They do this because they know that their sons will be misjudged in society’s institutions. Kunjufu (2009) explains that when some Black males behave in accord with their culture, their teachers perceive their shoulder shrugging, baggy clothes, sagging, attitudes, and direct eye contact as threatening, noisy, disrespectful, intimidating.
It is important that Black communities demand that service providers interrogate their assumptions about Black males and where those assumptions came from. In addition to interrogating their beliefs about Black males, they need culturally responsive policy making. To continue with the traditional approach of training Black males to adjust themselves in preparation for bias is placing too much pressure on them and not social institutions and it can lead them to internalize negative attitudes about themselves and other Black people.
Brewster, J., Stephenson, M., & Beard, H. (2014). Promises kept: Raising Black boys to succeed in school and in life. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.
Dovidio, J., & Gaertner, S. (2000). Aversive racism and selection decisions: 1989 and 1999. Psychological Science, 11(4), 315.
Franklin, A. J. (2004). From brotherhood to manhood: How Black men rescue their relationships and dreams from the invisibility syndrome. New York: Wiley.
Graham, A., & Anderson, K. (2008). “I have to be three steps ahead”: Academically gifted African American male students in an urban high school on the tension between an ethnic and academic identity. The Urban Review, 40(5), 472-499.
Majors, R., & Billson, J. M. (1992). Cool pose: The dilemmas of black manhood in America. New York: Lexington Books.