Racist Color-Blind Dress Codes

Aug 02 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

Several years ago I took this photo of the posted dress code for Brothers Bar in Madison, Wisconsin.   As an alumnus, I can tell you that the relationship between the college community and the community at large was strained, as it is in many college towns.  The college community was, on average, better off economically than much of the non-college community, with greater (potential) educational achievement, and overwhelmingly white.  There was less mingling between the “town” and “gown” than we might expect by random chance, and some businesses tried to attract the latter exclusively.

This was the case with Brothers Bar. Brothers sits within a block of campus, they wanted to attract the college students but push away young “townies,” as they were derogatorily called.  Of course, it’s illegal to say “Poor Black people keep out,” so, instead, they use symbolic codes to warn especially Black members of the non-college community that they’re not welcome: no crooked hats, no skullcaps, headbands, or bandanas, and no sports jerseys.

An enterprising journalist sat outside Brothers Bar to see just how the dress code was enforced.  Not “strictly,” it turned out.  The people who were turned away were overwhelmingly Black.  Meanwhile, they let in students wearing UW sports jerseys and other Bucky the Badger-themed “athletic wear.”  So much for color-blindness, this was a racist dress code with no reference to color at all.

I was reminded of this incident when Stephen Wilson sent in photo of a similar dress code taken at Kelly’s in Kansas City.  Again we see racially-coded restrictions: the same no crooked hats rule, doo rags and bandanas are disallowed, as are hoods actually worn on the head (but not the preppy hoodies apparently), and “excessively” baggy clothes.

So, 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.  These dress codes seem to say:

Turn those hats on straight forward or straight back, pull up those pants, and take off whatever’s on your head!  It’s not that we don’t like Black people, we just prefer our Black people to defer to white standards.  See?  Not racist at all!  Cheers!

9 responses so far

  • brooksphd says:

    That's really appalling. Did you notice any push back either from the community or patrons? any kind of boycott? Any negative media attention? I'm guessing not and that this is just typical and "invisible" accepted cultural racism...

  • Derek says:

    Madison has an odd thing going on wrt race/class. The idea being that crime is due to people who "aren't from here". Be it blacks who moved from Chicago, or visiting students from Minnesota. I lived in Madison for a while and agree that non-university blacks aren't quite so welcome in all "university" places, such as the bars downtown.

    What interested me more was the reporting of crime. It seemed to be that one incident with a weapon by a Chicago transplant would get much much more attention than a dozen sexual assaults by local boys. That's probably due to a variety of issues...

  • Dan Gaston says:

    If it is enforced in a discriminatory fashion then yes, clearly racism is at play. If it is enforced equally across the board? Not so much. I live in a pretty racially mixed city (for Canada), and many places have similar dress codes. In my experience they are enforced equally regardless of skin colour, and those items of clothing are hardly restricted to "poor blacks." Yeah, they come almost exclusively out of hip-hop culture, which is predominantly african-american, but I see a hell of a lot of white kids, from all socio-economic strata, dressed that way. Including a lot of college kids. The bars with these sorts of dress codes won't let them in either.

    But maybe it's just different here in that regard.

    • I've always assumed the downtown bars with similar dresscodes where I live were trying to keep out the students! Of course, there are more Black students than Black locals here, so maybe it is still about race after all.

  • Isabel says:

    "An enterprising journalist sat outside Brothers Bar to see just how the dress code was enforced. Not “strictly,” it turned out. "

    I'm confused: are you referring to an actual study here? Can you link to it? Thanks.

  • kb says:

    I saw this at my own college-town bars. "Baggy clothes" were not allowed. There was no posted dress code, but the bouncers enforced the rule.

  • kb says:

    Oh, and the rules were 100% enforced against groups of black students who tried to get into the bar together, and not the occasional black student who went with a bunch of white students. And they were 100% not enforced against white students, no matter how ill-fitting their trousers.

  • Tony says:

    Interesting, have you been to the All England Lawn and Tennis club or to Eton? Dress codes for a long time, is it correct. In my eyes NO, but it's their tradition for decades

  • BikeMonkey says:

    It's called "investigative reporting" Isabel. It isn't science but it does have it's own standards and such.