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The unwritten double standard in dress codes

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By Bonnie J. Walker

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As a young child, I remember waking up on weekdays to the smell of toast in the toaster, Folgers coffee and my father’s Ralph Lauren Polo cologne, which lingered subtly in the air after he left for work. The other mornings. I watched him from the doorway as he stood in front of the mirror in my parents’ bedroom, carefully winding and smoothing his tie.

He looked sharp for work, every day. He was always freshly shaven, with a low cut. Once a week, he would sit patiently staring at his face in a small magnifying tabletop mirror, for what felt like hours (but maybe only 30 minutes). He used a sewing pin to meticulously dig out the ingrown hairs on his face. This ritual was reserved for Sunday mornings so that the skin irritation that ensued would disappear before he had to shave again and leave for work the next morning.

Ingrown hairs can cause inflammation, pain and tiny bumps in areas where hair is removed, and they’re more common in black men who shave their facial hair, according to the Mayo Clinic. My father is black. He used the sewing pin to remove or uncurl one hair at a time, so he could shave daily to maintain his clean appearance. It was tedious and painful, but he endured it for years.

My dad wore a suit and tie to work every day, or at least a lot more often than he did, for his entire career. When I was younger, I thought every professional man dressed like this. I love children because of this naive and innocent worldview, their outlook starts out very insular and grows daily. We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s intriguing and exciting to see the growth that comes from diverse experiences.

In the United States, most working professionals dress in some form of Eurocentric professional attire; I was not mistaken when I was a child. That said, an everyday suit and tie is generally reserved for professional men who are in finance, politics or law, in a more corporate government position. Academics tend to dress much more casually. College professors, like my dad, don’t usually dress in a suit and tie every day, but rather only for special presentations, unless they’re the president or provost. Even in these positions, many lose the tie.

One day as a child I went to the office with my dad, and as we walked down the long, dark hallway that smelled of old architecture, with old white men in picture frames along the walls (former presidents and administrators ) at his office in Salisbury Hall, he peeked into a few offices to say hello to his colleagues.

I was very curious, and even taken aback, observing their attire. As they greeted me, their voices fell silent in my head as their mouths continued to move. I could only focus on Birkenstock sandals, flannel button-up shirts and jeans, Teva sandals and khaki shorts, long hair and stubble beards. These white male teachers were dressed very casually, even slovenly. I was confused. Later that evening, I could have asked my father what I had observed, but I was laser-focused on his attire. I asked him, dad, why do you wear a suit to work every day? He replied, Because I have to.

It took me many years after that conversation with my father to unpack his response. Due to systemic oppression, implicit and explicit biases and biases, impostor syndrome, and many other very race-specific challenges, many BIPOC people have learned the code of living with the double standards that they endure, including the way we dress professionally.

I’m not as oppressed as I used to be, but it’s still a priority. My black, professional husband is over 30 years younger than my dad, and he very rarely dresses casually for work. He is also a teacher.

Bonnie J. Walker is Director of Equity and Inclusion at Worcester Academy. Contact her at [email protected]

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