How professionalism standards and dress code policies support white supremacy

OPINION: Tennesse lawmaker Justin J. Pearson was called out by a white colleague for wearing a dashiki.  Why is it OK for other cultures to wear clothing that celebrates their heritage but when Black people do it, it’s “unprofessional”?

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

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

It’s Black History Month right now, which means white people everywhere are losing it over Black people being given a specified time to acknowledge and celebrate their history and accomplishments in this country. 

It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s something we have become accustomed to year after year. 

I was thinking about this the other day. Have you ever noticed that there are holidays and months designated to celebrate lots of different non-white and non-American cultures here, but the only time it gets extra dramatic is when it’s Black people? 

Why is that?

I mean, white people go out of their way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with tacos and tequila even though they have no clue what the holiday is actually a remembrance of. To them, it’s just time to put on sombreros and get drunk. 

It’s the same with St. Patrick’s Day. You will have everyone out here putting on green and pinching people who don’t wear green (Pro tip: don’t pinch me, cause I will slap you). There are cities where they will dye water in fountains green to celebrate. There are celebrations that get entirely out of control, and no one has a problem with it. 

But when a Black person wants to celebrate their heritage or even acknowledge it with a hairstyle or an outfit, it’s suddenly the biggest issue in the world, and everyone has to know about it because some white people just cannot handle not being the center of something. 

Take for example the situation in the Tennessee state legislature involving newly elected Black state Rep. Justin J. Pearson, who was criticized by a white representative for wearing a dashiki to his swearing in ceremony. 

As previously reported by theGrio, Pearson said wearing the dashiki on his first day of work as he was sworn in was “paying homage to the ancestors  who made this opportunity possible.”

Republican state Rep. David Hawk took issue with the dashiki and did the equivalent of subtweeting Pearson (because if nothing else, white people gonna throw a rock and hide their hand every single time) during opening remarks on the House floor last Thursday. 

You know how when white people want to chastise us about something they will invoke Martin Luther King Jr. to try and use his words and actions as the counterpoint to whatever it is we are doing?

Hawk did that very thing by invoking the name of Lois DeBerry, the first woman and Black person to be speaker pro tempore in the Tennessee House. Hawk told a story about DeBerry, who died in 2013, allegedly chastising him for not wearing a coat and tie to the General Assembly, saying 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,” and I’m sure he did not even realize the irony in him saying that. 

First of all, white man, please

How is Pearson wearing a dashiki disrespecting anyone? Is it not disrespectful for Hawk to be offended by it? Would he have the same attitude if an East Indian woman wore a sari or a Japanese woman wore a kimono? Would he be offended by a Sikh wearing his turban? 

Just where do we draw the line? Why is it acceptable for people of other cultures to acknowledge said cultures by wearing their traditional dress, but when a Black person does it, it’s suddenly “unprofessional”?

And don’t even get me started on the can of racist worms that is the racial construct of professionalism. I’ve discussed this before many times. The selective offense of it all grates my nerves. 

This is the part where I point out that most dress codes and professionalism standards are meant to police the behavior and presentation of Black people and other marginalized communities. 

Think about the signs outlining dress codes that you see outside of certain establishments. More often than not, the clothing described is mostly worn by Black people — specifically urban Black people. It would probably be easier if they just flat out said they didn’t want negroes frequenting their joints because that’s exactly what they mean. 

Finding offense in the way Black people express themselves is nothing new in America. We literally can’t even breathe without someone finding fault with the way we inhale. This is what happens when a country and a nation are built upon the foundation of white supremacy. 

These types of scenarios are the exact reason why legislation like the CROWN Act is necessary. You want us to make you more comfortable. You want us to assimilate and look like you. You want us to be everything other than our Black-ass selves just so our very presence is digestible for you. 

When I tell you I am entirely over respectability politics? Please believe me because it’s true. 

Martin Luther King Jr. wore a suit and tie and oftentimes a very gentlemanly hat everywhere he went, and y’all still killed him. 

It’s not our appearance or our dress or our hair that offends you; it’s our very presence in spaces you think should be white only or white dominant, and these tools are used to exclude us entirely. 

As for Justin J. Pearson, the Tennessee House does not have an official dress code, and if I were him, I would wear a dashiki every single day I showed up for work with my Black first raised high in the air. If white people want something to gawk at, let’s give it to them. 

Enough with these policies that are meant to make us feel less than. We are people just like everyone else, and we deserve to be present as our whole selves, not a fraction or whatever it is you want us to be. 

Monique Judge is a storyteller, content creator and writer living in Los Angeles. She is a word nerd who is a fan of the Oxford comma, spends way too much time on Twitter, and has more graphic t-shirts than you. Follow her on Twitter @thejournalista or check her out at

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