“Clothing is not racist”

19 Feb

I’m not quite done with Friday 2/8/13’s post (How about just dressing like college students?”) about the Asian-stereotype themed frat part at Duke University. I spotted this comment on the article, posted by ted409:

absolutely any human of any color or ethnicity who grew up in the middle of a poor chinese farming town would dress like this. Color or race has absolutely NOTHING to do with the way you dress. Clothing is not racist (http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/duke-kappa-sigma-party-ignites-firestorm-criticism).

Interesting, ted409. I hear you: clothing itself (fibers or hides that are pieced together to wear) is not inherently racist. In general, clothing by itself does not perpetuate systemic inequity on the basis of the wearer’s race. However, clothing can be racist. Take as an example the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear in Germany during WWII to identify them to the government. That badge was racist. And consider t-shirts with white supremacist slogans. So, ted, I would argue that clothing, which can be assigned, forced or simply not chosen, can be racist. The fact that we don’t generally experience clothing as racist is perhaps due to privileged circumstances, like being born and living outside of Nazi Germany.

Furthermore, I would argue that clothing is very racial (as opposed to having “absolutely nothing” to do with race). Differently than, but similarly to how clothing is informed by sex, gender, ethnicity and class, it is also informed by race. Hence, it is racial.

What do I mean? Our race does not determine what we wear, but it offers us norms, based on what we see other people–whom we do and don’t identify with–wearing. For instance, when I dress for work, I dress white. I also dress woman, moderately feminine, relatively socioeconomically privileged and US American.

Try to imagine what that looks like (if you haven’t already seen me at work).

Ready?

Snapshot: I typically wear pants or capris, flats, a button down shirt or a silk t-shirt. I wear neutral colors mostly: black, navy, browns and grays, and some jewelry (usually a ring, in addition to my wedding band, and a necklace).

Can you picture it? Ever seen that outfit before?

I dress in a way that is informed by the norms of the cultures in which I live and work (the latter is mostly schools). I am not white myself, but I dress in what I identify as a white US American education professional style. I might be a little off the mark of other people’s ideas of this group’s de facto “uniform,” but I haven’t gotten any stares yet or been asked to leave for violating the dress code.

This uniform of mine is not owned by white people. And at the same time, it is, I would have to argue, racial. In fact, “Color or race has absolutely NOTHING something to do with the way you dress.”

And as for ted’s claim that “absolutely any human of any color or ethnicity who grew up in the middle of a poor chinese farming town would dress like [the students at the Duke party],” I have to pause again. I agree, there are cultural norms around dress in any given place. However, conformity to those norms depends on several factors, including individual choice, financial resources (there’s big diamond norm around here that I don’t conform to because I have neither the means nor the inclination), expectations of the community–and how strictly the community enforces those expectations, and community resources for clothing. So when you look at pictures from the California Gold Rush, you will see lots of people wearing “typical” dress, depending on their sex, age and occupation. And you’ll also see outliers. So one more time, ted, I just have to say nope.

I do wonder, ted, what exactly are you protesting so vehemently?

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