Monday, November 28, 2005
From Ekow Yankah: Of Dressing Up and Selling Out
(Ekow Yankah is a rookie prawf at U. of Illinois and a former guest with Prawfs--Ed.)
Having learned nothing from my prior blogging (i.e. the difficulty of taking on sophisticated subjects in brief and suffering the consequences –or compliment- of much more thorough counterargument) I again tackle a sensitive topic. The topic has the danger of touching upon the live wire of race and pop culture. It will undoubtedly invite some to declare that I am a black man whose success has caused me to lose touch with black culture or identity (or much, much worse). My only real hope is that the lateness of my taking up the topic and the level of conversation on this website provides the highest level of intelligent accusations. Forward!
Earlier this year the NBA commissioner David Stern announced the imposition of a new NBA dress code. The dress code requires players to dress in business cassual attire when on official league business, e.g. on the way to games. It also specifically barred certain articles of clothing in what some viewed as a specific attack on black culture, for example barring all medallions and head wear. Set aside that some astute observers have noted that the announcement of the policy seemed strategically chosen to focus attention on professional basketball before the season when it is largely missing from the public eye. The imposition of the dress code, viewed as an imposition of a white mainstream aesthetic attempting to suppress the urban hip-hop style of a league dominated by young black athletes, gave rise to a predictable controversy.
Unlike some commentators I do not find the accusation absurd. Where the articles of clothing, (or speech, cultural knowledge or other markers) which determine one's fluidity in positions of power are dominated by a single race, it is impossible to imagine that race can be totally separated from these markers. Put simply, in America, white people largely, though certainly not singularly, define what constitutes "normal" or "appropriate" dress. Thus, when some black athletes viewed the NBA's dress code as an attempt to impose a style on them as racially charged, their position was not without basis.
To be sure, I am not claiming that Black America is monolithic in style or thought. African-Americans have a long history of elegance and style; the archetype of the fine Black gentleman and the resplendence of Black churches are but two examples. Further, the idea that having to dress up for work is somehow antithetical with black identity is not one I believe is largely held. Thus, the contention that a black man has to stake his identity in part on his low slung jeans and medallions is advanced by, at most, a sub-group of (typically young) African-Americans. Yet, it is undeniably there and easily tapped into.
We can quickly dispense with many of the arguments made against the dress code immediately following its imposition. Allen Iverson's repeated position that a suit does not make one a good man, if taken literally, is totally besides the point. Nobody would seriously contend that what you wear changes your moral make-up. (The possible exception to this may be where what one wears is morally relevant given social norms, so that wearing red to a funeral with the knowledge that this will cause insult may matter in light of the purposeful violation of strong social norms. But this point should be put aside.) The more powerful point in Iverson's position is of that the league's attempt to make its product more palatable is a shallow one as the various advertisers ought recognize that whatever traits that they found unattractive in basketball players would seem unchanged by simply putting basketball players in Valentino.
This, of course, ignores that in many instances the very thing that advertisers object to is the image of the players and that advertisers are unapologetically shallow. (Never mind the ultimate question in my mind as to whether, even from an advertising point-of-view, this is a good move for the league.) The even better argument by Marcus Camby that the league should consider giving a clothing stipend to a group of millionaires predictably drowned in a sea of laughter. I, for one, thought it did not get a fair hearing and am forwarding this wonderful and ambitious contention to my Dean for translation into the law school setting.
Further, the spate of rights talk ("One has a right to determine what one wears") is untenable. Absent interaction with other rights (e.g. religious expression) few contest that that employers may determine, within reason, appropriate work wear. Indeed, it is the very fact that most of us are intimately aware of our employer's ability to demand professional dress that made the entire debate seem silly or self indulgent to the general public. After all, wouldn't many young, white lawyers love to wear jeans and a baseball cap into the office? Don't the masses of young whites (and for that matter, many others including Blacks) understand that they must trade in some measure of personal freedom in order to participate in commercial life (a point that is made with much more vitriol by unsavory commentators to whom I am sorry to give comfort)?
Still a related point seems to motivate the debate; the idea that somehow, giving in to these demands would somehow be different for a young, black basketball player than for the young, white Merrill Lynch analyst. It is this charge which worries me. It is the idea that any compromise, giving even an inch on those markers of Black urban identity is to sell out, which gives this indictment its currency. This is what grounds Iverson's and Rip Hamilton's comments that complying with the dress code strikes them as "fake."
It is important to recognize that the contention that participation with mainstream demands somehow negates one's claim to Black authenticity is deeply harmful and counter-productive. This contention introduces a profoundly different tension than the tension facing most white Americans in the same position. Because the very definition of "appropriate" dress has a racial charge, there may be more at stake for an African-American in considering a career's normal trade-offs. This is especially so when the symbols that seem under attack are perceived to be precisely symbols of Black (sub)culture. But in the hand of some, advertently or inadvertently, this position becomes one of cultural brinksmanship. As I have said, it is not a position I believe most Black Americans to hold, but it is clear that the current is there, readily tapped into and in many cases abused.
For those of you who know me personally and believe this position is simply born of my clearly abnormal like of neckties… ummm… well… I'll get back to you on that.
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Further, the spate of rights talk ("One has a right to determine what one wears") is untenable. Absent interaction with other rights (e.g. religious expression) few contest that that employers may determine, within reason, appropriate work wear. Indeed, it is the very fact that most of us are intimately aware of our employer's ability to demand professional dress that made the entire debate seem silly or self indulgent to the general public. After all, wouldn't many young, white lawyers love to wear jeans and a baseball cap into the office?
Why is this? Perhaps what we need is a more critical analysis of dress codes in general, unbundled from the issue of race. Instead of asking "do the racial implications justify an objection to this particular imposition of a dress code," we might do better asking "what justifies the imposition of dress codes in general, and do those justifications apply here?"
What is the role of "mainstream dress?" Why do we have it? What are the sources of the suit and tie norm, for example, in various professional positions? Off the top of my head:
a. Aesthetic virtues? This strikes me as unlikely, for the simple reason that our notion of attractive is, of course, culturally constructed. The only reason that suit+tie looks more "professional" is because "professionals" are known to wear suit+tie.
b. Class signaling? This seems a bit more likely. Many items of clothing in the "professional" repertoire seem to be designed to advertise the wearer's inability to do manual labor. For example, dress shoes are wholly inappropriate for any real work, or even lengthy walking (compare women's shoes seemingly designed to hobble women, as many a feminist has rightly pointed out), and suits can only be worn in the summer if one will be sitting in an air-conditioned office all day. I've long thought that the function of the necktie is to break up the chest and thus make the wearer less physically imposing. Might this be part of the NBA thing? De-athleticizing, de-physicalizing the athletes in order to send a class message?
c. Conformity signaling? Perhaps a function of dress codes is to announce the wearer as the sort of person who complies with dress codes, i.e. an obedient person, who can be trusted to submit to authority. This is reflected, of course, in aspects of the 60's youth rebellion, where clothing (and hair etc.) were deliberately used to flout authority.
Assuming b) and c) are major functions of dress codes in general, one must wonder whether they're legitimate, either in general or in application to the NBA.
b) we've just replaced racism with classism. Hardly an improvement. In the NBA, when we re-introduce the race issue with a style of clothing that serves to de-emphasize physical attributes, there's also a question of racist mythology. Could the NBA be unconsciously attempting to minimize the distinctive physical appearance (tall, strong, super-athletic) of its players in service of the myth of the black aggressor? (making the black men less scary) This is obviously bad.
c) this might, arguably, be a positive thing to the extent that certain prominent basketball players are associated with antisocial behavior, and the NBA has an interest in promoting an image of law-abiding conformity. However, if that's the case, it's a bit of a deceptive and indirect way to do it. Rather, expel the players who do crimes, and then there's no need to rely on external signals of obedience. Plus, backetball is not a field where obedience is an explicit virtue of the profession, unlike for example the law, where the suit-wearing norm in the courtroom can be seen as a signal of submission to the immediately present judicial authority. Plus, again, re-introducing the race angle
Just my 2 cents. Then again, this could just be my abnormal dislike of neckties talking...
Posted by: Paul Gowder | Nov 28, 2005 2:25:36 PM
ooops, left off the second-to-last paragraph: reintroducing the race angle, it seems like there's a concern that this kind of compliance signaling might also be born of racist assumptions, i.e. black people need extra signals of their non-criminal behavior.
Posted by: Paul Gowder | Nov 28, 2005 2:27:52 PM
The original function of the necktie, a professor once assured me, was to keep cinders from getting inside one's shirt as one rode an open-windowed train in the nineteenth century. I've done nothing to verify the authenticity of this tale.
Posted by: Ted | Nov 28, 2005 3:37:09 PM
i am the taxi driver who picked you up this morning. i want you to get in touch with me about your going to Ghana. you can email me or you can contact me on my cell at 917-250-7287.
Posted by: Emmanuel Burns | Nov 20, 2007 7:51:35 PM
Ted's tail is really interesting. I don't know if there is anyreality or not.
Posted by: Ben | Jun 19, 2008 3:02:34 PM
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