"No Hats Allowed" - A Euro-Centric Tradition that Upholds the Racist Practices Embedded in Colonialism

We must look at our practices from an equitable, anti-racist, and trauma-informed stance, rather than considering what we have always done out of sheer tradition.


14 min read
"No Hats Allowed" - A Euro-Centric Tradition that Upholds the Racist Practices Embedded in Colonialism

The first academic paper I have written since my Ed. Degree was for the principal and assistant principal of my school. In the email with the paper attached I wrote:

Good morning,

Attached is a paper I have written discussing the colonial practices of school dress codes. I have written this paper as I would like to propose a change to our school hat policy. Hats should be allowed in school as this creates a more equitable practice for students who wear headwear as part of their cultural dress. I argue in the paper the same for hoods however I understand the safety issue that can be posed in hallways (I would be happy to give my personal insights with this in person). With that being said, I would like to suggest that we allow hoods in classrooms at each teacher’s discretion.

Please let me know a time that works for you to discuss further.

The following is not verbatim what I wrote in my original paper, but it captures the picture with some changes in tone and reflection on related conversations throughout.

As you enter our school you see signs that say “Please Remove Your Hat” and “We Are a Hat-Free School.” I enforced the rule as my colleagues around me were extremely adamant about this rule in particular. “It’s a sign of respect,” they said. I had been thinking since the beginning of the school year that in my small-town high school the rule was abolished (hoods still not allowed though, I will touch on this later) with an admin change. We had a high population of international students; I never asked, but it was probably something to do with that — but I thought it was time for our school to do the same in the name of equity.

A Black student in my class came to school wearing a durag. I talked to my partner-teacher and we decided we wouldn’t say anything until we talked to our admin. I caught up with my AP to discuss the “incident” to say that I did not want him to feel as though I was racially profiling him but I was worried perhaps another staff member would uphold the tradition of the hat rule. I was told to email home and ask if the durag was a cultural piece. I came back to my administrator later that day to say I was feeling uncomfortable as a white educator questioning the culture of a Black family. She agreed, and there was no email sent. We discussed if we discarded the no-hat-rule there would be no question about whether or not a student’s dress was cultural, and therefore an exemption to the age-old rule. Changing the rule was never brought up again.

In option classes I ask my students whom I only see twice a week to take off their hoods (I must (in order to be a compliant staff member) start the class like this because the norms are not as embedded as my regular classroom). I often scan the room for who has not yet done so and my eyes fall on the young Muslim girl wearing her hijab. (This has happened several semesters). When we make eye contact I can always tell for that split second she nervously awaits to see if I will ask her to remove it. I never do of course, as this would be an infraction of her right to wear her cultural head-wear, but the fabric on her head always directs my eyes. It would be easy to avoid this uncomfortable situation if I was not policing students at all for this infraction.

“No hats or hoods allowed, with the exception of one specific student,” is often a phrase a teacher may write on their sub plans. “This student has experienced trauma and their hood helps them feel safe.” There are several things wrong with this exclusive practice. First there is attention called to the student if another student wears their hood and uses the excuse — “why are they allowed to wear theirs?!” An uncomfortable situation of putting a student on the spot, already looking to avoid attention, easily avoided if all students were allowed to wear hats/hoods in the classroom. The other is that we assume no other student has experienced trauma in our classrooms. Unfortunately trauma, although it has its own mental and physical symptoms, is not always something you can see from the outside. Trauma informed practices assume everyone has experienced some sort of trauma, and again, treating the classroom and school as an equitable space can make students in these unknown situations feel some semblance of safety for ten months of the year.

We talk about equity in the classroom. We work to compile resources that will allow all of our students to be seen and have discussions so that everyone can feel heard. However, students cannot truly feel seen if they are not free to dress in such a way that expresses who they are. It is an easy argument to say, they can express themselves in other ways that does not involve a hat or a hood. It is an easy argument when you are a white person. When we look at Black culture and Black dress and the individual identity that the Black population has created through their plight in our Euro-Centric world, we may begin to see where this statement no longer holds true. The same is true for other cultural dress and trauma informed practices.

The no hat rule is an “antiquated” one and there is nothing inherently offensive about it. The rule is rooted in Christianity and is a centuries old etiquette rule (Moor). Without colonialism, this would not exist in what we know as Canada today. European settlers came to Canada, committed genocide against the Indigenous peoples here, converted them to Christianity, and then began forcibly taking children from their homes by government orders to have their cultures abolished and assimilate them into Christian culture. These Residential Schools were where children were oftentimes physically and sexually abused, suffered mass malnutrition, and were many times buried in unmarked graves (Pember). The last residential school only closed in 1996. To consider traditions offensive that have roots in Christianity is upholding the narrative that Christianity is right, and all other religions are wrong. It upholds Euro-centric values that have enslaved and murdered millions of Black, Indigenous, Japanese, Chinese, Latinx, and other global majorities in order to expand European control. We talk about decolonizing education, well this seems like a logical and easily attainable start. The counterargument is that “[h]ats….could be offensive to some people” (McCarthy). Those who are feeling offended must consider that just because it has always been offensive does not answer the question of why it is offensive. Although many consider removing one’s hat as a sign of respect, they must be able to provide reasoning for why a hat-less person equates to a respectful one.

These underlying forms of systemic racism in the form of dress codes lead us to explore microaggressions. Microaggressions in an educational sense:

[A]re the indirect, subtle, or even unintentional ways that teachers discriminate against students of color and other marginalized student groups. They include body language, choice of words, and other small seemingly innocuous daily decisions. Often teacher microaggressions are couched in an authentic attempt by the teacher to connect with students. Many times, however, these microaggressions are distinctly connected with the manner in which teachers choose to enforce school rules…Teachers giving undue attention to student behavior that is technically against school rules but not directly tied to a specific consequence is sometimes referred to as “sweating the small stuff.” Teachers must examine their motivations when enforcing rules in order to recognize their own microaggressions. All teachers have “pet peeves.” Questions for every teacher to ask themselves include, “Why does this behavior bother me so much?” “Will enforcing this rule help keep students safe?” “Do I disapprove of this behavior because of the way I was raised?” “Is enforcing a rule at a particular time worth the potential loss of relationship capital with the student?”…One student behavior that is clearly more about etiquette and an outdated understanding of what respect means, is the wearing of hats and hoods in the school building…But just as often students wear hats or hoods to provide a sense of security in attempt to overcome something like social anxiety or an insecurity related to appearance (like a bad haircut). The idea that hats worn inside a building is disrespectful has fallen out of favor in almost every venue with the exception of the schoolhouse. Today, hats are frequently worn inside movie theatres, formal concerts, churches, and virtually any other public place. Constantly insisting that students remove hats and hoods at school is a microaggression because it is premised on an antiquated view of respect and does not account for present day cultural practices among communities of color…To avoid microaggressions, white teachers should utilize what is called “culturally responsive teaching.” Teachers who are educated in how their students’ lives diverge from their own are better equipped at recognizing their own implicit bias, the mindset on which the microaggressions feed. Teachers must understand that deciding whether or not to “sweat the small stuff” is not just a matter of classroom management, it is a matter of social justice. (Baker)

Although educators may not realize their very establishments are built upon racist practices, and although we say we have diverse buildings, Wade captures this notion in his article “Racist-Color Blind Dress Code” when he says: “sure, Black people are allowed in these establishments, just not Black people ‘of a certain type.’ If they want to enter, they have to assimilate to white culture” (Wade).

I wrote in my original paper that dress code policies have made progress in terms of more ambiguous policies that do not police specifics to students’ dress but rather visions such as “students [are] not to be marginalized based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity markers” (Nittle). I thought this was true of my school (because this is what I upheld in my room, minus the hat/hood rule) until I went back to the Student Handbook where it stated:

[Our school] is a learning and business environment. All members of the school community are expected to meet reasonable standards of dress in keeping with the atmosphere of the school.

The following guidelines should assist you:

1. Images and messages on clothing cannot be offensive. Clothing will not promote alcohol, drugs, violence, racism, sexism or any form of intolerance.

2. Excessive skin exposure is not appropriate in a learning environment. Tank tops, muscle shirts, and shirts that bare midriffs may not be worn. Underwear should not be visible.

3. Hats and headgear are not permitted during normal school hours unless for religious reasons.

Please note that any student who is unsuitably dressed will be required to change into acceptable clothing or return home to change prior to re-admittance to the school.

This was also met with a conversation about how bra straps and “spaghetti straps” are disrespectful as well. Further it was discussed “remember when those groups of boys came to school a few years ago with their pants down around their knees and their boxers hanging out. That was disgusting. We won’t have any of that” (Loosely quoted). So I will not include any praise for “how far we’ve come” in this version. Nittle says it best: “While many schools continue to impose dress codes shaped by outmoded race, class, and gender constructs, a growing number are addressing how their policies disproportionately affect certain groups of students more than others, [oftentimes without] realiz[ing] how dress codes targeted certain groups of students until…district[s] [come] under fire for [their policies] (Nittle). As educators we discuss preparing our students for the future, however we must remember that “[w]e’re not raising all of our kids to work in a bank. Some are going to have jobs where they don’t have a collar” (Nittle). Aside from the varying opportunities each student is afforded, many students will thrive in environments outside of the typical white-collar jobs that we so often attribute success to — keep this in mind when looking back to the Student Handbook where it states that our school is a “business environment.”

On the topic of the sagging pants and hoodie culture, these come back to primarily Black trends. The “[s]agging began in prison, where oversized uniforms were issued without belts to prevent suicide and their use as weapons. The style spread through rappers and music videos, from the ghetto to the suburbs and around the world” (Murray 31). This echoes the systemic incarceration of Black men in the United States, so to further analyze that sagging pants is more than simply a trend, but rather it is a commentary of the rate at which Black men are incarcerated. Institutionalized racism is much more apparent once you realize it is embedded in everyday life and culture of Black people. **We face similar trends in Canada in terms of larger incarceration rates of Indigenous men, but this is a topic all on its own.**

The hoodie in itself “frames a dirty look, obscures acne and anxiety, masks headphones in study hall, makes a cone of solitude that will suffice for an autonomous realm (Patterson). However, “[a] glance at almost any police blotter…will confirm the hoodie as a wardrobe staple of the criminal class, and this makes it uniquely convenient as a proxy for racial profiling or any other exercise of enmity” (Patterson). In his article, “In the Wake of Trayvon Martin’s Death, the Hoodie Takes on a Greater Meaning,” Samuels says: “You see a white man wearing a hoodie and you think, oh, he’s coming from the gym or it’s cold outside,” …“But as a black man, you have to be more guarded. You see how uneasy people become when they see you with it” (Samuels). With the recent anti-racism protests surrounding George Floyd we can look back to Trayvon Martin and the 911 call made by his killer:

‘Did you see what he was wearing?’’ George Zimmerman: ‘‘Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie.’’ Triv­ial details can bear serious import. Surely there would have been demonstrations after the killing and the killer’s acquittal regardless of what the victim wore… All that potential subtext is attached to a generally evocative item of clothing. The white working-class hoodie still glows with the Rocky Balboa ideal of grit and tenacity. The yoga-class hoodie is sold on a promise of snuggly virtue that may explain why in Saskatchewan they call the thing a ‘‘bunny hug.’’ The tech-sector hoodie made default by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg carries on the garment’s proud juvenile tradition of informality and defiance. Once perceived as an affront to professionalism, it has since settled in as a convention…But the ascent of casual wear does not quite disguise the unchanging strictness of social codes, and the hood continues to frame matters of class and race in ways that tend to satisfy the interest of power. The lingering question of the hoodie is simply: Who enjoys the right to wear one without challenge? (Patterson)

Although hoodies are a “no-no” for all students (with an exception I will further discuss below), we are, inadvertently, equating the hoodie with crime — a microaggression again when we look to where the trend originated.

The hoodie becomes an escape, when we look to trauma — a form of protection. “The behavior of wearing a hoodie pulled tight over their heads, curled up, head down on a desk or sitting quietly in the corner of the classroom, is similar to what they may have had to do at home” says Izard from the National Education Association in a “Teaching Children from Poverty and Trauma” Handbook (9). “They try to become invisible so that they are not seen by a drunken care- giver or abuser who comes home looking for a punching bag or worse. The smaller their footprint, they reason, the less likely they are of being seen and hurt again” (9). Jim Walters reiterated a personal account of his own trauma while he was a student titled “Dear Trauma-Informed Teacher”:

You may not have remembered me by name but I was that student that sat in the back of your 4th hour English Literature class by the windows. I came to school every day with the same Oklahoma City Thunder hoodie pulled over my head. On my good days when teachers allowed, I made myself invisible by pulling my hoodie strings so tight that only a fraction of my face was exposed. I’ve convinced my friends along the way that I was a huge Russell Westbrook fan which granted me a social pass to wear this same hoodie every single day…that hoodie was my way not only to conceal my pain but it also allowed me not to be on a heightened state of alert 24/7 to defend my poverty. (Walters)

It is a rare occurrence in many classrooms, however, that a student does get a “pass” when it comes to wearing a hood. To meet the “standard” one must definitely have a documented diagnosis and a legal document created by the school (IPP, SEP, SSP, IEP, what-have-you) AND it must be stated in this document that their hood is a coping strategy. The argument for abolishing hoodies along with hats is never a go because someone could come into the school unrecognized because of their hood (again, the hood is equated with crime). The hood rule (or better, no hood rule) is about safety.

We allow Hijabs in our school (this fits with guideline number 3 of my school’s handbook: “Hats and headgear are not permitted during normal school hours unless for religious reasons.” Notice it is for “religious” reasons, not cultural). We must recount how it was a journey to get to this point — one that was fought for, and is it still an issue in other parts of our society today. Reminding us we are still fighting for rights in the form of dress for others. Part of the history of the Hijab can be recounted here:

Many women began to adopt it as a militant act in the 1970s when they became involved in political action through their participation in the Islamist political projects that formed part of a belated revolt, in many places, against the violent colonial project of westernisation or as a means of political resistance. As a consequence of these battles, the hijab was legitimised and many women felt more dignified and freer wearing it. (Ramírez 672)

Contrary to popular belief, the Hijab actually gave women more freedom in Islamic culture. “The hijab went from being a sign of submission in the eyes of colonial modernity to becoming a sign of assertiveness, and women actively appropriated it (Göle 2003)” (673). It is the notion of the white saviour that has ever sparked the Hijab to be problematic. Much like Black culture and dress, it comes back to the policing of the female body. “[F]rom the Western point of view, the headscarf is always explained as a symbol of backwardness and the subordination of women. It formed part of the con- struction of a colonial discourse that differentiated the coloniser from the colonised, and even today continues to dominate relationships with Muslims (Ahmed 1992)” (673). What begins to fall apart when we analyze it from a colonial perspective is “[t]he main argument for banning its use is the liberation of women” (674). To control what both men and women of global majorities wear “intensifies the sense of domination and control” (682) so ultimately, is it this control we as educators must surrender in order to create a truly equitable and accepting institution.

All in all, especially in the wake of mass-protests around the world in the name of Black Lives Matter, there are changes that can, and must, be made in educational institutions. While changes can be made in individual classrooms, there are larger, institutional practices that must be adapted as well. We must look at our practices from an equitable, anti-racist, and trauma-informed stance, rather than considering what we have always done out of sheer tradition. We must ask ourselves where our traditions are rooted, and how they have been harmful to others throughout our history; but also how they are still harmful in our present.

Works Cited

Baker, Aaron. SpoonVision.WordPress.Com (9 December 2017): https://www.google.ca/amp/s/spoonvision.wordpress.com/2017/12/09/take-your-hood-off-and-other-teacher-microaggressions/amp/. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Izard, Ernest. NEA.org (June 2016): https://www.nea.org/assets/docs/20200_Poverty%20Handbook_flat.pdf. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Lorenz, Stacy L., Murray, Rod. “Goodbye to the Gangstas”: The NBA Dress Code, Ray Emery, and the Policing of Blackness in Basketball and Hockey.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 2014, Vol. 38(1) 23–50.

McCarthy, James F. “Milford Bans Hats in School: [BLACKSTONE VALLEY Edition].”Telegram & Gazette, Aug 12, 1994, pp. B3.

Mccormick, Philip. “Healing Colonial Trauma.” Journal of Black Studies, Nov 2008, Vol.39(2), pp.252–265.

Moor, Ashley. “This is Why It’s Rude To Wear A Hat Indoors.” BestLifeOnline.com (10 January 2019): https://bestlifeonline.com/rude-to-wear-a-hat-indoors/. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Niddle, Nadra. “Students Are Waging War On Sexist And Racist School Dress Codes.” Vox.com (13 September 2018): https://www.google.ca/amp/s/www.vox.com/platform/amp/the-goods/2018/9/13/17847542/students-waging-war-sexist-racist-school-dress-codes. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Patterson, Troy. “The Politics of the Hoodie.” The New York Time Magazine (2 March 2016): https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/magazine/the-politics-of-the-hoodie.html. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Pember, Mary Annette. TheAtlantic.com (8 March 2019): https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/traumatic-legacy-indian-boarding-schools/584293/. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Ramírez, Ángeles. “Control over Female ‘Muslim’ Bodies: Culture, Politics and Dress Code Laws in Some Muslim and Non-Muslim Countries.” Identities: Interrogating Intersectionalities, Gendering Mobilities, Racializing Trans/nationalism 22.6 (2015): 671–86.

Samuels, Robert. “In The Wake of Trayvon Martins Death the Hoodie Takes on a Greater Meaning.” The Washington Post (29 March 2012): https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/therootdc/post/in-the-wake-of-trayvon-martins-death-the-hoodie-takes-on-a-greater-meaning/2012/03/29/gIQA44hHjS_blog.html. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Wade, Lisa. “Racist-Color Blind Dress Codes.” TheSocietyPages.org (2 August 2011): https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/08/02/racist-color-blind-dress-codes/. Accessed 15 June 2020.

Walters, Jim. “Dear Trauma-Informed Teacher.” Medium.com (9 April 2018): https://medium.com/@drjimwalters/dear-trauma-informed-teacher-75d3df9f4be4. Accessed 15 June 2020.

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