Tennessee lawmaker says ‘white supremacist’ colleague called him out for wearing a dashiki

Newly elected state Rep. Justin J. Pearson said he planned to wear a dashiki, a popular outfit among African Americans with roots in West Africa, on his first day of work to pay homage to his ancestors.

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A Tennessee lawmaker is calling a fellow legislator a “white supremacist” after saying he was criticized for wearing a dashiki in the Tennessee House.

State Rep. Justin J. Pearson is stirring up controversy and raising questions about what constitutes appropriate professional attire following the Democrat’s Thursday outfit choice, according to Action News 5.

Pearson was elected last month in a special election to succeed the late Rep. Barbara Cooper, the station reported, and on his first day of work, he decided to wear a dashiki, a popular shirt among African Americans with roots in West Africa.

State Rep. Justin J. Pearson, a Tennessee Democrat, is calling out his GOP colleagues after they criticized him for wearing a dashiki (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube.com/Action News 5)

“Wearing this dashiki on the first day and being sworn in,” Pearson said, “wearing it is paying homage to the ancestors who made this opportunity possible.”

Republican state Rep. David Hawk of Greene County spoke during the Tennessee House’s opening remarks on Thursday. While he avoided mentioning Pearson by name, he shared a story about late state legislator Lois DeBerry.

DeBerry, a Democrat from Memphis elected to serve in the state House in 1972, was the first woman and African American to become speaker pro tempore. Hawk claimed that Deberry once chastised him for failing to wear a coat and tie to the General Assembly, adding that her memory is honored by “how we look and how we treat each other and how we give the respect we hope to get back.” It’s been more than 10 years since DeBerry, who died in 2013, served as a state lawmaker.

Pearson and other Democrats said they believe Hawk was wrong to criticize him on the House floor, and Pearson said updated decorum standards are necessary.

The legislator posted a photo of himself in a dashiki and raising his fist on social media on Thursday.

“A white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my dashiki,” he wrote, in part, on Twitter. “Resistance and subversion to the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable.”

The Tennessee House Republicans responded, contending on Twitter that referring to the unanimously passed House rules on dress attire was “far from a racist attack,” and adding, “If you don’t like the rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.”

There isn’t a formal policy governing what Tennessee lawmakers can wear on the House floor, according to Action News 5. However, per the chamber’s Permanent Rules of Order, the speaker of the House is the person responsible for maintaining decorum — and Speaker Cameron Sexton said legislators would continue following DeBerry’s path.

“During her historic tenure in the General Assembly,” Sexton said in a statement, “the late Lois DeBerry established a precedent for attire that remains in place today; men must wear a coat and a tie if they wish to be recognized in committee or on the House floor. Ms. DeBerry would frequently address members violating this precedent and remind them of the requirement.” 

Regardless, Pearson said he would continue to honor his heritage and culture in the state House.

“I’ve been wearing suits since I was eight,” he said Friday, according to Action News 5. “It’s not a problem with wearing suits, there is a problem with upholding systems that tell people what is wrong and what is right based on what is considered normal and, in this status quo, what is normal is what is white.”

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