Hoodies, Hats, and Cultural Nuance

I am a high school teacher. A decade ago, I was in a corporate job, working as a market research analyst. If you’d asked me then what a teacher had to worry about, I would have mentioned content knowledge, administrators, parents, and homework.

What would I not have mentioned? Hats. Hoods. The things students wear on their heads.

And yet, headwear is a persistent point of discussion among teachers. We have reasons at the ready as to why it’s banned in our classrooms.

However, I’ve been rethinking my position. Do headwear bans do more harm than good, by creating an environment where the perception of safety and respect for authority is more important than treating all students with respect?

A recent Upworthy article argues that bans on non-religious headwear in the classroom are a racial microaggression. Microaggressions are small slights and snubs, often unconscious, which communicate negative messages about and towards marginalized groups. Microaggressions against anyone who isn’t an affluent able-bodied white cishet Christian man are tragically widespread in our culture.

The argument that headwear bans are microaggressions is a complicated one. Historically, the “cultured” man was expected to remove his hat when coming into most buildings. This is a European tradition, and many feel that expecting students of color to learn and follow this guideline is yet another way in which European “culture” is shown as superior to their own heritage.

Also, as I discussed in an earlier article, many students only have one coat, one which has a hoodie attached. It is a proportionally greater burden on a poor student than on a more affluent one to expect them to purchase a second coat, and so such a demand can easily become a socioeconomic microaggression.

I’ll come back to this, but the controversy demands a related question: Why do schools care so much?

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There are some superficially logical reasons for banning headwear. The biggest one is safety: Students with hoods over their heads are more difficult to identify. In some schools, headwear can signify gang membership. Hoods can be grabbed from behind as a cheap shot way of starting a fight. Recently, I was told that some students hide weapons and contraband under their hats.

I’ve seen security footage from several schools, and I agree that it’s much more difficulty to identify students if their faces are obscured. At the same time, though, there’s a lot that’s difficult to identify from security footage. It’s far better for the adults to be in the hallways, interceding in altercations. Having been in that situation multiple times, hoods weren’t much of an issue: If I know my students, hoods aren’t disguising them.

Every rule represents something else that can be applied with inequity.

Gang membership, hiding contraband, cheap shots… Those are decent enough reasons, but students will find other ways to do those things. Students can hide a lot in loose fitting clothes, for instance. Unless a school has a strict dress code and multiple daily searches, weapons can be brought into schools.

When it comes to classroom bans (as opposed to hallway bans), identification becomes less of a defense. If I can’t differentiate the identities of twenty to forty students that I’ve had in my classroom for months, there’s a bigger problem than “hoodies” going on.

This is not to belittle the importance of safety. Safety in school is crucial to effective education. What I disagree on is how best to create a true sense of safety. Does reminding students multiple times a day that they’re seen as potential criminals truly serve that purpose?

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Teachers also defend bans on the use of hoodies in the classroom because hoodies hide earbuds, and so it’s harder to tell when a student is zoning out. I’ve used this argument in the past, and I continue to struggle with where, exactly, I stand on this issue.

On the one hand, it’s true. Many times, when I’ve asked a student to take their hoodie off their head, they’ve had earbuds on. I’ve then had them take their earbuds out. I do believe that students who have their ears clear of distraction are more likely to listen than those who don’t.

The question is: How much more? If students who don’t care about the class content don’t have the distraction of earbuds, how else will they distract themselves? In some cases, by enforcing rules against hoodies and earbuds, I’ve indeed increased their attention level. In other cases, though, I’ve created a new distraction as the student starts talking to everyone around them.

Power struggles become an issue of costs vs. benefits.

In an ideal classroom, whatever it is that I present to my students will be so engaging and exciting that they’ll set aside their distractions and join in. I know that’s what my administration expects. For the most part, students with hoodies are disengaged, hence the ban. This implies, though, that students without hoodies are engaged, which isn’t necessarily true.

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Another common defense for hoodie bans is that we teachers are preparing students for the “real world.” In my years in corporate America, I don’t remember anyone ever wearing a hat or a hood once they were situated at their work station.

So where did they put them? When I had an office, I put my coat on the hook behind the door. When I had a cubicle, I draped it over my chair.

Where do students put them? There are lockers, sure, but in schools like mine, lockers aren’t well-designed for the bulky possessions of the modern student. When I went to high school (in the 1980s), backpacks were unheard of, and even so the locker I had assigned to me was larger than the ones my students have.

Plus, in many schools, the room temperatures are dangerously low or unreliable. Students bring their coats into their classrooms in case they’re needed.

We don’t get respect by demanding it; we get respect by earning it.

In my years in corporate America, I never worked in a workplace which wasn’t in a comfortable band around 70 degrees, except when I was outside for market research. Corporate America would not tolerate it. Why do we tolerate environments for our less affluent children that we do not tolerate for ourselves?

Even if I had a section of my room designated for coats and backpacks (something I’ve contemplated), students would resist using it because they don’t trust their classmates. Much of the horseplay I have in my classroom is because students swipe things from each other’s desks.

Furthermore, by suggesting that we’re preparing our students for “the real world,” we’re suggesting that the corporate America model is what they should be striving towards. This is a European model of success, tied to 1950s White Men. It implies there’s something wrong with any other route to success… which is a microaggression.

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These days, here’s why my students usually want to wear things on their heads in the classroom:

— It’s comfortable or fashionable

— There’s no place else to put it (where it won’t get stolen or lost)

— They want to hide from the world

— They want to hide their earbuds

— They want to hide a bad haircut

— There’s a rule against it (because that’s how some teenagers function)

When I first started teaching, I had some black students say they were honoring Treyvon Martin, but I’m not sure how much that’s top of mind for my current students. And while most of the reasons I get these days are admittedly trivial, so what? It is not for us adults to decide what counts as a “valid” reason for wearing something, it’s on us to defend our own restrictions.

What does a student of color hear when a white authority figure enforces what they see as a trivial, arbitrary rule? Students of color, particularly black students, are disproportionately suspended and expelled. Every rule represents something else that can be applied with inequity.

I am concerned that many in the field of education are using logical-sounding reasons to hide a more problematic reason for such classroom bans: To enforce respect through control and appearance. Another very Eurocentric value is that appearance is more important than reality.

We don’t get respect by demanding it; we get respect by earning it. And we don’t earn it through disingenuous policies that start with disrespectful implications about our students.

Author’s addendum/clarification: Some teachers appear to feel that I am suggesting that we give up on enforcing rules, especially about headphones. Not at all. Headphones are a distraction, and unless they’re related to specifically permitted study time or a student’s properly documented special needs, they don’t belong in the classroom. The relevant point is that simply banning distractions without addressing the root cause is going to lead many (not all!) students to find another distraction. The ideal approach is to find ways that engage students and otherwise help them to set aside their reasons for wanting to shut out the classroom.

Originally published at The Good Men Project.

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