The other day, I read that two strong proponents of the “pull your pants up” doctrine are Rupert Murdoch personality Bill O’Reilly and former television star Bill Cosby. Neither are praiseworthy men for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because they have made running their mouths a virtue when they should have been running their lives in a manner befitting the privilege they own. No surprise that they share similar views.
However, I, too, though, was raised to believe the doctrine they preached, that of respectability: if you just pull up your pants and look nice and conform to the standard that majority culture has set for you, oh young brown person, All Will Be Well. But, that’s not true. On so, so, so many levels… not true.
Not true – not safe – and communicable – this is a lie that infects like a disease. Tidy, upright behavior doesn’t save lives. Instead, it shifts responsibility for racism from racists, by asking the people being harmed to change. It’s a false security, since believing you’re safe when you’re not always means you’re in more danger. It’s never worked permanently, with everyone, so it doesn’t work. And it asks people to not be who they were created to be. And yet, it persists, getting passed on from parents to children – which is where I got mine.
So, I offer today’s poem in apology to my students throughout the years, with whom I shared what I knew, which was the politics of respectability. I will never tell another student to dress for the life that they wish.* Dress how you will. Live as you should.
Once, I believed and on this point enthused —
That tidy living kept you off the news.
A tidy desk evoked a tidy mind;
Shirts tucked in at the waist looked more benign.
A backwards cap – or sideways! – signaled vice,
Like fishnets, cleavage, short-shorts, fuzzy dice…
(As if correctness covered shaming’s face
“Match purse to shoes, and no one sees your race!”)
Truth: belted trousers will not save a life
Sloppy couture indulged in, once or twice
Will never lead a white child to their grave
It’s not the pants, or how the kid behaves…
To students whom I begged to change their look
And match their outfits with their dream bankbook
I wronged you all: forgive me, if you can.
I’m just now learning clothes don’t make the man.
RANDOM ERRATA: Should my theme of the month have been lies? It seems my poetry finds me there more often than exploring the truth. Obsessed with the dark side, I am. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll find a lighter truth tomorrow.
I KNOW. Some of you are teachers and have AUGHT TO SAY about that clothing statement. Come at me. Get it off your chest, you’ll feel better. Mind, I’ll still have my opinion, but you’ll have shared yours.