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Avoid Imposing Racist Dress Code

“Dress for success” A mantra that many of us are familiar with — the idea that the way we dress, the way we first present ourselves in the workplace has demonstrable impact on our success. While it is imperative that we maintain a professional demeanor in our work lives, the idea of what constitutes “professional dress” varies between industries, schools, and individual companies. The variety of dress codes and grooming policies these companies impose are often meant to unify and standardize appearance standards, whether for practical reasons, safety reasons, maintaining office decorum, or conducting public perception. An example would be requiring all employees in a retail store to wear t-shirts of a certain color, allowing for customers to easily identify them if they need assistance. But despite how common dress codes are, the ideas of what constitute appropriate dress may cause dress codes to reflect racist or gendered stereotypes. Moreover, certain groups may feel disproportionately restricted by a dress code that unduly restrict or punish their gender identity, racial identity, or disability. The workplace dress code is an integral part of company culture, but it can inadvertently perpetuate biases and discrimination, often in ways that reinforce racial or gender stereotypes. In today’s blog post, we’ll explore the importance of avoiding racist or sexist dress codes, understanding their impact, and implementing inclusive policies that foster equality and respect for all employees or students.

How can a dress code policy be discriminatory?

Dress codes, from workplace dress codes to school dress codes, are often mandated in order to enforce attitudes and ideas about professionalism. However, dress codes can enter the realm of discrimination if they stem from implicit biases, perpetuating stereotypes that associate professionalism with certain, specific ideas of appropriate dress. For example, a grooming policy that prohibits employees from wearing natural hairstyles or requires them to chemically straighten their hair to conform to Eurocentric standards can be discriminatory. Such policies disregard the natural hair textures and cultural significance of hairstyles commonly worn by Black individuals. These restrictions can create a hostile environment, conveying the message that natural Black hairstyles are deemed unprofessional or unacceptable, thereby marginalizing employees based on their racial or ethnic identity.

How have dress code issues been handled by administrators?

But more often than not, what constitutes a dress code violation varies by context, and there are times where these dress codes have been challenged based on discrimination towards religious beliefs or gender expression. The California School Board’s Association outlines how recent legislation has protected students who wear natural hairstyles and religious dress, but highlights how school dress codes still disproportionately target female students and gender nonconforming students. Many school boards leave the challenge of dress codes in public schools to school officials. Dress codes and grooming policies also raise the question of free speech and freedom of expression. The Supreme Court of the United States has historically denied to hear arguments about dress codes directly, but did hold that students cannot be compelled to remove articles of clothing that convey a specific viewpoint per school dress codes, so long as that viewpoint is not hate speech. For instance, school dress codes cannot ban clothing that displays support for a specific political candidate, but it can ban clothing that displays slurs or promotes gang attire. Oftentimes, dress codes are examined on a case by case basis, especially as it pertains to private organizations, and there is tons of grey area.

To highlight how grey this area really is, look at these common challenges to dress codes and their arguments. Do you think they are discriminatory?

  • A dress code that allows female employees to wear earrings but bans male employees from wearing them.
  • Requiring employees that identify as male to wear neckties, but not women.
  • Requiring employees to keep facial hair short.
  • Requiring employees to wear a hair net when working with food.
If you answered, “none of them,” then you are correct. Challenges to these dress codes have generally not been upheld, and this is because these examples constitute reasonable restrictions on dress that conform to “social norms,” or public safety.

Now look at these examples. Are they discriminatory?

  • A uniform policy requiring female employees to wear uniforms but allowing males to wear casual clothes.
  • Male employees being required to wear formal attire, while female employees are not.
  • A Black employee being required to chemically alter their hair.
  • Forbidding articles of clothing that have cultural or religious significance such as head coverings, hijabs, turbans, or crucifixes when there is not safety hazard to wearing them.
You can see here that discrimination occurs when a dress code policy unduly bans or restricts clothing that are worn by those of a specific gender identity, race, culture, or religion, without an unbiased underlying reason such as safety reasons. Legal concerns have been raised on these issues, which are clearly targeted towards individuals of a certain race or set of religious beliefs, and have generally been successful.

How do we create anti-racist dress codes?

It’s essential for workplace dress codes to be equitable, respectful, and free from discriminatory practices that target or restrict attire based on genders, cultural, or racial characteristics. Instead, organizations should adopt inclusive dress code policies that embrace diversity, respect individual expression, and promote a welcoming environment for employees of all backgrounds. I’ve emphasized in many blog posts that combating gender discrimination, disability discrimination, and racial discrimination is not a matter of creating an instant fix. Challenging deeply-ingrained, systemic biases that took decades to develop requires a process, and it’s a matter of direction, not perfection. I recommend the following:

Review and reassess your current practices and policies

We can only move forward if we have a solid idea of where we’re starting, and that’s only possible by taking a hard look in the mirror. Examine your existing dress code and be critical; is there even a shadow of a chance that an employee may feel they are denied equal access or treatment on the basis of their dress? While a dress code may not be explicitly discriminatory, some elements may make certain employees feel uncomfortable, such as a ban on all jewelry, or a ban on all gendered clothing in favor of a gender neutral dress code.

Seek employee input

Include employees from diverse backgrounds in the policy-making process to ensure the guidelines are respectful and accommodating of diverse attire. Speak with employees at all levels of the company, from new hires to legacy staff members. Speaking with new employees is a great way to get an idea of your policies’ first impression, and the more senior staff members may give you a better idea of how the corporate culture has shifted and where old policies no longer work. Encourage honesty, and reassure your team that feedback is crucial for creating a more open, honest, and fair workplace.

Provide training on diversity, equity and inclusion

Provide education and training for all employees and management on the significance of inclusivity in dress code policies. This goes hand in hand with continued education on implicit biases, and maintaining an annual training will be helpful in ensuring all employees are on the same page.


In short, by avoiding racist dress codes and embracing inclusive attire policies, organizations can foster a workplace where cultural diversity is valued and everyone feels respected. An equitable dress code policy is one that ensures employees that their cultural, racial, and gender identity is protected, and that we all deserve the right to dress our best in a way that reflects our truth. Upholding equitable dress code standards reflects a commitment to diversity, equity, and a welcoming environment for all employees. 

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