There may be good intentions behind setting a professional dress code for your workplace. However, dress codes have and continue to be used as tools of oppression. It’s important to recognize the historical influence of racism attached to these workplace standards.
Traditional dress codes work to police certain kinds of bodies. They ensure that employees follow the practices of the dominant culture. Under the guise of professionalism, dress codes tend to punish marginalized groups of employees for refusing to conform.
On the surface, dress codes seem to only focus on styles of clothing and so they are treated as neutral, colour blind measures. When considering the groups of people that have adopted certain styles —baggy clothing, athletic attire and brimless headgear (like du-rags and bandanas), for example—it’s clear that these policies target the dress of some cultures more than others. Black employees continue to be disproportionately impacted by workplace dress codes.
When trying to set a dress code for your workplace, consider having a diverse decision-making group compose your guidelines. Representation matters. Identity-diverse decision-making groups are better equipped to protect against racist enforcement of stereotypes and biases.
Employees shouldn’t have to conform to the norms of the dominant culture in order to succeed in the workplace. A business suit isn’t what makes a good employee.
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