Telling male students of color to pull up their sagging pants is almost reflexive for some teachers. But what are the deeper implications of this practice?
When I was in 9th grade, I wanted a pair of JNCO jeans. If you don’t know what JNCO jeans were, count yourself lucky. They were jeans with absurdly wide leg openings – some as wide as the waistline itself – and pockets large enough to carry around a good-sized dog. They were, in a word, ridiculous. (Seriously, you should probably Google Image search them right now just to jog your memory back to that dark place in the 90’s where JNCOs reside.)
But, my friends were wearing them, I liked my friends, and I wanted my friends to like me. Ipso facto, I wanted a pair of JNCOs.
I asked my mom, and my mom, understandably, said no. But, after much pleading, she relented to buying me a pair of toned-down JNCOs, i.e. a pair with leg openings that weren’t as wide as manhole covers (thank you, Mom). She did this not because I wore her down – although I’m sure I worked hard at that – but because she was probably wise enough to see that it wasn’t about the foolish-looking jeans – it was about being young and trying to fit in.
I see London, I see France…
Which brings us to a popular trend in jeaning today: sagging – the practice of wearing one’s jeans beneath the waistline and revealing a little – or a lot – of one’s underwear. It’s primarily popular among young, urban, African-American males, and many municipalities and schools have sought to ban it – sometimes to draconian extents.
But just like the JNCOs and me, sagging pants are a stylistic choice. What we should see when we see a pair of low-slung jeans is not some affront to our notions of decency. What we should see is a kid trying to fit in. Trying to find their identity. Trying to figure out their place in the world. And yes, trying to do all these things by giving the world a peek at their undies.
Something else that seems to escape those who endeavor to marshall appropriate pant-wearing procedures: It’s intended to be rebellious. It’s intended to piss off the authorities. It’s intended to be a dig at all the old heads that look on them with furrowed brows and talk some variation of “kids these days.” And that’s okay. Kids are supposed to be testing boundaries in high school and becoming more independent by thumbing their nose at those who seek to restrict their independence. There are much more dangerous ways for them to do this than how they wear their pants.
Beyond the boxer shorts
Here’s the real problem with school rules that prohibit saggy pants: there are serious racial implications. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself: Who does this rule apply to, when put into practice? I mean, yes, we say that it applies to everyone, but who, in actuality, is affected by it? Women? White males? No. There is one singular group for whom sagging pants is a popular style choice: Young, black males.
When there’s a rule, and it only restricts young men of color, there’s a problem there.
But it goes deeper than silly rules about pants. Young black males are one of our most vulnerable groups in schools. Less than half of them graduate from high school, they’re 2.5 times more likely to be suspended, and they are vastly overrepresented in our prison system. They need our protection and support – not our priggish conceptions of what is right for them to wear. Doling out punishments for their stylistic choices seems absurdly trivial when compared to the formidable statistics they face. And getting in power struggles about enforcing sagging bans does nothing but toxify a potentially healthy relationship. What message does that send about what we, as educators, really care about?
While it’s not mentioned in any core standards anywhere, our jobs as educators most certainly include the role of moralist. Teaching kids the value of kindness, empathy, and compassion is one our most important tasks. But moralizing about the placement of students’ waistlines? I’ll leave that up to them and their parents.
What becomes of our loose-waisted youth?
One last thing: I’m sure you’re thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if Dylan still wears JNCOs?”
This may come as a surprise, but the answer is…no. I’m sure that pair of JNCOs I owned in the late 90’s made their way through my dad’s ragbag long ago and are now residing deep in a landfill somewhere (where they deserve to be).
It turns out that I grew up, I stopped caring so much about fitting in, and I stopped making absurd choices about my attire (well, for the most part anyway. My wife might quibble with that last one). And our students will as well. Just because they make dubious choices about how they wear their clothes doesn’t mean they will in the future and that we’ve failed them. It just means we’ve allowed them a safe space to grow and express themselves and make bad style choices that they’ll probably regret someday. And everyone’s entitled to that.
What do you think? Do sagging pants signal the decline of civilization? Or should we focus our energy elsewhere? Post your thoughts in the comments below!