Dress Code, A Noun and a Verb

Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri legislatures are making “handmaid” a verb, an action taken upon any and all women, whether or not of reproductive age or inclination.  This action sends the message to us women that our whole selves are just a synecdoche, a decrescendo of body parts, pudenda, or what my son and daughter used to call “particulars.”  Another blog post will explore ways to think of men’s whole selves as just their sperm, but today’s treats the unequal burden of school dress codes on girl students.

Our local county school system has made “dress code” a verb, dress-coding high-school girls left and right for the clothes they choose to wear or have available to wear.  Some girls get dress-coded, and others don’t, even if they’re wearing the same clothes or same exact styles as the ones who do.  Some girls don’t get dress-coded for a specific outfit four weeks in a row, but then do get dress-coded for that same outfit the fifth week.  Some girls attend formal conversations about the dress code held at school.  They are wearing clothes that the dress code prohibits.  The administrators do not dress-code them or make any mention of it.  Most high-school students have a certain set of styles available to them, and those styles also do not conform to dress code.  Many students cannot afford one set of clothes for weekend activities and an entirely different set for the school week.

Also, it’s hot.  We sometimes have ten days in a row of hot, humid weather in February or March, and very often we have this weather in August, September, October, March, April, and May.  Schools have air-conditioning, but it doesn’t always work.  It is just hot. Dress codes that mandate shorts and skirts to “mid-thigh range” are impossible to obey, unless Target, American Eagle, JCPenney, and any other number of stores completely overhaul their inventory.  “Mid-thigh” also points all interested parties’ attention to one region—the mid-thigh.  As a friend recently pointed out, school should point everyone’s attention to one region—the brain.

And the boys?  They’re wearing whatever the hell they want and watching their girl classmates’ bodies get scrutinized, criticized, taxonomized, and harassed by adult teachers and administrators.  These role models teach the students that girls’ bodies define them, thus making the girls objects, non-human, subject to whatever other decisions are to be made for and about them, not by or with them.  Some girls are sent home to change and some are given others’ clothes to change into. Some girls are punished with after-school detention, and some with in-school suspension.  These girls who dare to be themselves are labeled “defiant,” a loaded and gendered term in the context of school rules, hierarchies, and power systems.

This is the path to the Handmaid’s Tale.  If a girl is just her body, then we forget that she has a brain and a skill set and an opinion and her own way of existing in the world.  This objectification creates a shorter path from real, live, full-person girl to just body to state-controlled incubator, as we’re seeing in various states and on way too many courts in the land.

Furthermore, if we can’t even eliminate a binary gender-based boy/girl dress code, how will we teach students to embrace a full range of gender expression, thus creating a welcoming environment for all students who spend the day in the public school environment?

When I was in ninth grade (first year of high school), my mother made me wear a dress or a skirt every day.  I was not a big fan of dresses or skirts, preferring to wear athletic clothing so that I could play pick-up basketball at lunchtime and make a quick change into practice clothes for after-school sports.  My mother had the idea that you should honor the school day by wearing “proper” clothing, and so I wore a dress or skirt most days of ninth grade.  I walked to school, carrying a book bag, instrument, and sports bag, and I climbed over a brick wall at the beginning of my walk to shorten the trek by at least a mile.  Looking back, I can’t imagine my clothing was in a proper state most days by the time I got to school.  In the meantime, this was the early ‘80’s, and my classmates were wearing the standard uniform of blue jeans and black concert t-shirts (winter) or shorts and black concert t-shirts (spring). My attire was decidedly impractical and uncool, but I did what my mother said.

I did what my mother said for one year, and then I didn’t.  Obedience was silly and impractical.  She knew that, too. I was 15 and had my own tastes and personality and hobbies, and I needed to wear the clothing that expressed all of that.  I also had been buying my own clothes since I was 12, and it was time to buy clothes that I wanted to buy.  By that point, my mother got the point.  There was no need for me to stage a rebellion or to outline a case.  It was just time for me to wear the clothing that made sense for the weather and my daily trajectory and activities.

I don’t remember that my school had a dress code, and I don’t remember any of us being scrutinized by teachers or administrators for the clothes we chose to wear.  Admittedly, this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; I just don’t remember our feeling bound by a dress code or, by extrapolation, of enforcement of a dress code.  In other words, we were free to wear what was comfortable, to express ourselves through our clothing (or not to, if that was our preference).  I could be the nerd in the dress for a whole year, and then I could be the tomboy in the gym shorts the next year.  It didn’t matter.

It does not matter whether I like or do not like the fashions young people, and especially school-aged girls, choose to wear.  What matters is that each and every person has fair and equal access to educational opportunities and success, with no undue burden placed on any gender.

When I go to my daughter’s sporting events, a disembodied voice from the press box commands the audience to rise for the National Anthem and for the gentlemen to remove their caps.  I don’t consider myself a gentleman, and so I don’t remove my cap, which I’m wearing to keep the setting sun out of my eyes as the game begins.  I believe this is the only instance in which the boys and men are being asked to obey a dress code element that the girls and women are not—but it’s only due to the gendered assumption that only one gender wears baseball caps.

I believe, too, that women administrators (and maybe teachers) often bear the extra burden of enforcing dress codes because dress codes often make men afraid to have to look at or to be caught looking at adolescent girls’ bodies.  All of it is weirdly sexualizing, creepy, and unnecessary.

This 2016 Forbes Magazine article looks at the history of dress codes, and therefore the history of gender bias through clothing impositions, stating that: “In ancient Sparta, Athens and many other Greek city states from around the 4th century BCE, there was an appointed group of magistrates called the γυναικονόμοι (“controllers of women”).”  You can guess where the rest of the paragraph will take you.   This 2014 NPR piece examines the inconsistent nature of public school dress codes, as well as the pervasive gender bias in the codes themselves.  NPR also links to the National Center for Transgender Equality site as a resource for schools to be more inclusive in their dress codes.  In 2015, the ACLU of Idaho sent out a legal memo, which “notes that gender stereotyping dress standards can violate the U.S. and Idaho constitutions, federal laws including Title IX, and the Idaho Human Rights Act. Requiring boys and girls to dress differently or according to government-imposed gender norms is unlawful gender discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. and State Constitution also prohibit this type of discrimination.”  (See more ACLU dress code information here; see also this interesting and thorough 2015 piece from The Atlantic.)  This 2016 Newsweek article signals the dangers of mandating what women employees must wear or must not wear.

Let’s stop looking mid-thigh and start going full-brain.  In summary, a poem:


Parts is Parts

Women are like Perdue chickens,
born whole, then harvested for our parts,
the breast meat, the drumsticks, the thigh;
no head left, no brain there.

Just parts

parts

parts.

We’re like Perdue chickens,
bred for service,
born
hole.


	

Family Values?

(Poster from a vigil/protest, Lexington, VA, June 14, 2018)

Last week, I was walking our dog past a neighbor’s house.  I called a “hello” to the elderly neighbor, who sat in a chair under a tree in his beautifully tended garden, a garden I have watched him plant, water, and weed for over two decades.  He said “hello” and then asked if I was a teacher.  When I said “yes,” he asked what I taught, and I replied with the simplest answer possible, “Spanish.”  “Damn Mexicans,” he said.  I walked on, feeling shocked (even though of course I know how many people in this racist country subscribe to such beliefs), hurt (in a representative way, knowing that this comment towards me is nothing compared to comments made against others, which are absolutely nothing when compared to real acts of hatred and violence committed against real people), and angry (why wasn’t my dog pooping in the beautiful garden at that very moment?).

This little comment from a neighbor who I thought for years was a kindly old gardener should give us every bit of evidence we need that the United States has taken a more dramatic turn, almost two years into the Trump regime, towards violent, racist acts and, in particular, significant gaslighting effected daily through the fast-paced, absolutely wacked GOP spin-machine.  The New York Times reports (6-15-2018), “’I hate the children being taken away,’ Mr. Trump told reporters on Friday morning in front of the White House. ‘The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law.’  A short time later, he wrote on Twitter, ‘The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda.’”  The very next line of the The New York Times piece says, “But Mr. Trump was misrepresenting his own policy.”  The GOP spin machine does not even realize how good they have it, when newspapers such as The New York Times continue to soft-pedal the language of Trump’s lies, which, in turn, normalizes his racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and blatantly anti-family platforms and actions.  While Trump voters continue to sport bumper stickers that say, “Don’t believe the liberal media” and “NRA.  Don’t let them take your guns away,” the so-called liberal media is struggling to keep up with reporting and rebutting the extensive lies told by this dictator and his kleptocratic cronies.  (*See this 6-14-18 related piece from Slate.) The lies run so long and deep, and their reach allows the regime’s inhumanity to stretch to every corner of the United States and to many corners of the world.

I probably do not need to remind you that on this day, Fathers’ Day in the United States, the Trump regime is actively separating children from their mothers and fathers at the borders, placing children in privately-owned detention centers, and constructing an actual tent city for these young children left alone in western Texas.  We see the news—not fake, completely verified—in every outlet and confirm the stories—that 1,995 children have been separated from their parents over the last six weeks; that a Honduran man committed suicide after being separated from his family; that a Guatemalan woman was picked up by ICE and deported, leaving her young child alone.  These stories are heartbreaking in the aggregrate—the staggering numbers of separated families—and in the particular—each and every case of a parent separated from a child for a minute, a day, a week, indefinitely, and often at great and likely insurmountable geographical distances.

In addition, recent news from the Department of “Justice” reveals that the United States will no longer grant asylum to victims of domestic abuse or of gang violence.  These policies demonstrate again the entrenched racism and misogyny of the Jeff Sessions DOJ.

The academic realm offers us many lessons about and depictions of the gradual erosion of civil rights and democracy.  We do not have to dig too deep to find acute moments of U.S. history at which parents and children have been separated: the institution and business of slavery and separation of African-American parents from children; the creation of “Indian schools” to separate Native children from their parents and force them to assimilate into white culture; United States internment camps of Japanese individuals and families.  This 2016 article from Human Rights Advocates (University of San Francisco School of Law) details the steps in denying civil liberties, which lead to the dehumanization, torture, and sometimes death of specific groups of targeted peoples.  Chilling subtitles of the article include: “Arbitrary Deprivation of Liberty”; “Structural Violence and Discrimination”; “Degrading Treatment” (health concerns; sexual abuse; immigration workers); “Right to Counsel” (beware the officials who believe that migrant children make good immigrant rights lawyers); “Private Detention Facilities.”  Note this warning by the authors in their conclusion: “Accountability for violence against children in these detention centers is difficult to achieve because the actors are private businesses and not the State. The incongruity here is that the government contracts private companies to deal with social and economic issues that are entirely the concern of the State. This unique task blurs private and State responsibilities. This issue should be included in national action plans on business and human rights in efforts to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

*Consider the historical context of this 1941 Dr. Seuss piece and relate it to today’s realities.

Add to all of this the multiple reports (including this one) that Trump will withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council, and you find an even more deliberate and dire picture of the politics of inhumanity in these United States.

The heroic work of the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR), the thousands of Indivisible groups across the nation, and many other major legal and political resistance groups is not enough to get us away from this regime.  We need Republicans—politicians, party leaders, voters, Republican-leaning people just going with this flow—to decide finally that it is time to express vociferously their discontent with the Trump regime.   I know many of you.  I am your neighbor. I am related to you.  I work with you.  I cannot accept that you accept this increasing dehumanization and cruelty.  When will you decide that enough is enough?  This is not just one person (me) moralizing about others’ lack of action, but rather a whole nation watching the corrosion and corruption of its high-level governmental officials, watching the erosion of civil rights and democracy, watching itself implode.  This cannot possibly be what good people want for themselves and others, can it?  This cannot possibly be what people mean by “family values,” can it?

Free Speech: For Whom is it Free?

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States…

Yesterday the so-called president of the United States had what should have been the pleasant task of honoring Navajo code talkers from World War II. As we all know by now, he did so at the White House, in front of a painting of Andrew Jackson, fetishized Native peoples, and then, for at least the twelfth time, referred to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.”  Donald Trump’s and Elizabeth Warren’s workplace is the Unites States government, whose buildings include the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and media venues and publications.  This racist epithet, repeated now so many times, constitutes not only demonstrated racial harassment of Elizabeth Warren as employee in the national workplace, but also racial harassment of Native peoples in general.  This could be grounds for a Title VII lawsuit against the harasser-in-chief and should be added to the long list of discriminatory, harassing, and retaliatory actions taken by this individual.

Some of you out there might think, “Oh, come on.  This is no big deal.  These are just words.  Let’s move on.”  I would ask you, though, how often will we agree to move on?  The racist-in-chief already lowered the bar so far so as to not only allow, but actually encourage, the violence of Charlottesville, thus chilling and degenerating conversations about racial justice, extreme incarceration, and hate speech.  These highly public statements, made live, on the news, and impetuously, through Twitter, create a hostile work environment for the individuals targeted and for the groups the harasser-in-chief believes they represent.  I also wonder if those who do not belong to legally protected categories but who do experience harm from the hostile work environments that impinge on others’ freedoms have some sort of claim here to insist on improved environments for all.

In this piece from The New York Review of Books (9-28-17), National Legal Director of the ACLU David Cole asks these important questions: “Does the First Amendment need a rewrite in the era of Donald Trump? Should the rise of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups lead us to cut back the protection afforded to speech that expresses hatred and advocates violence, or otherwise undermines equality? If free speech exacerbates inequality, why doesn’t equality, also protected by the Constitution, take precedence?”  Cole examines the elasticity of the First Amendment, stating that fewer millennials have faith in free speech than did previous generations and that some European nations differ from the United States in the scope of prohibitions against racist speech.  While Cole acknowledges the importance of these points, as well as the significance of the 1993 collection of essays titled Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment, he still insists: “If free speech is critical to democracy and to holding our representatives accountable—and it is—we cannot allow our representatives to suppress views they think are wrong, false, or disruptive.”  In a speech delivered in Lexington, Virginia, Virginia ACLU Board member Wornie Reed cogently and ardently defended free speech along the same lines, as he does in this piece about the Virginia ACLU’s defense of Charlottesville white supremacist rally leader Jason Kessler.

Ted Gup writes in “Free Speech, but Not for All?” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4-27-17): “Barring speakers or preventing hate speech does not safeguard the oppressed. It empowers the oppressors, and it suggests that their words are to be feared for a compelling, persuasive power that, absent the muzzle, might infect others.”  As Gup defends free speech in his critique of Ulrich Baer’s argument, he makes reference to “Baer and his ilk.”  He cites “abolitionists, gay and lesbian people, civil-rights activists, feminist, and others on the cutting edge of change” as groups who have benefited from unfettered free speech, but then uses Arthur Miller as the principal example of someone who was barred from speaking at the University of North Carolina.  Arthur Miller did not suffer for lack of visibility and invitations to share his work publicly, but many others from the groups cited by Gup certainly have.

Cole, Reed, and Gup make excellent arguments in favor of maintaining free speech laws.  These arguments have sound basis in constitutional law and knowledge of traditional touchstones for democracy.  Nevertheless, I find the arguments also to be steeped in a nostalgia for the United States as the cradle of democracy from centuries past, when founding fathers owned human beings and limited the rights of enslaved individuals and women.  Democratic freedoms played favorites back then, and they still do now.  When I think about the $17 million of taxpayer money used by members of Congress to hush cases of harassment against them, I think again about who gets to speak, who is silenced, and who pays for it all.

My question, then, is this: At what point have we indulged free speech so thoroughly and allowed free speech to become so married to Second Amendment rights that free speech can be said to limit the freedoms of others? If African-Americans and other people of color felt unsafe just existing in the streets of Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, then they were less free to navigate the public sphere during those days.  If Nazis and presidents continue to be given maximum public forums to expose hatred, they change the environment and the level of risk for the groups they hate (people of color, migrant peoples, women, non-Christians, LGBTQIA+ individuals, etc.).  Why must someone’s right to use the N-word or the C-word, both of which can constitute physical threats, supersede others’ rights to move through public spaces, which include workplaces, restaurants and stores, schools, and government office buildings?  If the Sessions Justice Department advocates for greater free speech, especially on college and university campuses, can we interpret this as providing a more ample forum for hate speech?  If so, then hateful speech acts will require more corporeal forms of resistance, thus upping the ante on conflict and the real risks and dangers it represents. (*See Tiya Miles’ piece, “Fighting Racism Is Not Just a War of Words,” in the 10-21-17 The New York Times.  See also Adam Harris’ free speech-hateful speech piece in the 10-25-17 The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

In her book License to Harass, Laura Beth Nielsen states: “Rather than seriously engaging in an analysis of the costs and benefits to society of rules that might limit such behavior [hate speech], American courts have treated such conduct as ‘speech,’ which can be regulated only if the state offers a compelling justification.  This doctrinal treatment in effect grants a license to harass.  The judicial protection of offensive public speech works to normalize and justify such behavior” (3). Nielsen then (on page 3, and later in Chapter 7) makes the point that the most legally restricted form of public/street speech is that of begging, a restriction which demonstrates a significant class bias.  We might consider swinging the pendulum away from granting power to practitioners of hate speech and violent speech and towards those who have already been afforded certain protections under the law (Title VII, Title IX) precisely because of their historically limited free access to public spaces and media outlets.

The harasser-in-chief has created the biggest hostile work environment possible—the United States of America.  We do not have to allow this to continue.

Education in the Trumpocracy

(http://www.ushistory.org/us/39a.asp)

Oak Plains School (North Carolina; built in late 19th century for white children)

When the “president” appointed Betsy DeVos to the education secretary post on November 23, 2016, and she was confirmed on February 7, 2017, I groaned out loud, along with many of my friends and colleagues who are teachers.  DeVos seemed uniquely unqualified to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education in that her principal experience with education is having been a high school and college (undergraduate) student.  She has no experience as a teacher, administrator, or educational policy expert. On her own website, DeVos describes herself as “a proven leader, an innovator, a disruptor and an advocate.”  She also uses the word “pioneer” in her self-description. This billionaire and former chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party is co-opting revolutionary language to promote herself and to cement traditional platforms that take us back to the 19th century (or probably before, since positivist, pro-science philosophy thrived in the late 19th century).  If she is a “proven leader,” then the direction in which she is moving her followers is most definitely backwards.  If she is a “disruptor,” then it is due to her utter lack of experience in the educational realm.  This Gender Shrapnel Blog post examines damage wrought by DeVos in the areas of public education, education access and affirmative action (also a Justice Department issue, of course), and Title IX protections for women and transgender individuals.  This is a shrapnel cluster, hitting religion, race, class, and gender.

The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of The Constitution of the United States (also linked here through the White House site), taken together and interpreted through centuries of jurisprudence, “[build] a wall of separation between Church & State” (Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists).  Garrett Epps’s article in The Atlantic (6-15-2011) uses abundant textual evidence that the founding fathers never intended to build a Christian nation.  For all that the GOP claims to be the party of “constitutional correctness,” the intentional Christianization of our public school system thumbs its nose at the purpose and practice of the First Amendment.  In 2001, DeVos stated, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom” (cited in this Mother Jones article from March/April 2017).  DeVos & Company must feel a dizzying sense of power as they promote Christian charter schools (see here what DeVos did to public education in Michigan) and funneling public monies into Christian schools.  This 3-20-2017 article from The Atlantic explains the ways in which the Trump-DeVos team might dismantle school integration.

In its Manichean view of the world, does the Trump-DeVos axis realize that the tables could be turned and their own children and grandchildren might have to attend public schools dominated by religions other than Christianity?  As a resident of the United States, I believe in the free practice of religion, which means not having religion of any kind imposed in the public school system.  In our area, the moment of silence built into the public school day, the prayer gatherings on public school buses and at public school flagpoles, and the invitation to Christian “inspirational” or “motivational” speakers already demonstrate the much more dangerous and more slippery slope of the DeVos regime in education.  The ACLU warns the same here.

While Jeff Sessions is at the helm of the Justice Department’s initiative to sue universities over affirmative action (described in this 8-1-2017 piece in The Washington Post), Betsy DeVos is to blame as well.  One of the first hires she made in the new post was that of Candice Jackson as acting head of the Department of Education’s (DOE’s) Office for Civil Rights (OCR).  This NBS News (4-14-2017) piece probes how well Jackson’s disapproval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and her anti-affirmative action stance meshes with the mission statement of the OCR.  DeVos does not seem as riled up about legacy admissions to colleges and universities, perhaps principally because they still favor white people. (See related pieces in The Washington Post; The New York Times; Business Insider; The Chronicle of Higher Education; and another in The Washington Post.) The DeVos regime, as part of the Trumpocracy, is all about accomplishing the opposite of the office’s mission.  Again, this is DeVos, through Jackson, leading us backwards.

While we’re on the subject of the now-infamous Candice Jackson, let’s not forget that she has followed her boss’s lead in advocating for men’s rights over women’s in campus sexual assault cases.  The New York Times (7-13-2017) says about Jackson: “Investigative processes have not been ‘fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student,’ Ms. Jackson argued, and students have been branded rapists ‘when the facts just don’t back that up.’ In most investigations, she said, there’s ‘not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.’ ‘Rather, the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,’ Ms. Jackson said.”  Jackson does not even use the term “rape” or “sexual assault,” but rather, “students overrode the will of a young woman.”  Although Jackson later attempted to clarify the statement, she has made it clear that she does not believe campus sexual assault happens and, by extrapolation, does not believe rapists exist.

In the meantime, Jackson’s boss, DeVos, was meeting with men’s rights activists.  As Jon Krakauer and Laura L. Dunn say in this op-ed (8-3-2017) from The New York Times, “The Department of Education is taking a hard look at its policies on campus sexual assault.  The result may make colleges safer.  For rapists.”  (*See Mili Mitra’s 7-18-2017 op-ed in The Washington Post for an eloquent rationale of the need for a strong DOE and OCR to follow up Dear Colleague letters issued under the Obama administration; see Katz’s and Alejandro’s 8-3-2017 op-ed in USA Today; see also this 1-2-2017 Gender Shrapnel Blog post.)

DeVos is also crippling Title IX protections in the realm of transgender rights, as detailed here by the ACLU (3-29-2017), although she is reported to have been initially in favor of maintaining Obama-era protections.  Through DeVos, and of his own accord, Trump is using the transgender community to pander to his base in the face of epically low approval ratings.

None of this is about education (DOE; DeVos) or civil rights (OCR; Jackson).  It is about fake-revolutionary rhetoric and continuing to assert power to the benefit of few and the detriment of many.