Saturday, March 21, 2009

Pearls, Ties and Identity

A Hubbard Middle School initiative called “Girls in Pearls” and “Guys in Ties” (see piqued my interest, having covered Plainfield for 25 years and being well aware of African-American issues around dress and hair styles. Listening to WBAI since its inception also played into my awareness of the struggle for balance between mainstream norms and culturally important identity factors.

So given that background, I posed three questions to Dr. Steve Gallon III, who as chief school administrator in Plainfield is responsible for the school environment of about 7,000 young people with diverse outlooks. Dr. Gallon was kind enough to share his views.

Plaintalker: To some people, this initiative may smack of conceding to the mainstream society at the cost of racial identity. After all, it was a hard-won fight for people to be able to wear cornrows and dreadlocks in the workplace, so why the pearls and ties norm?

Dr. Gallon: With respect to the Girls in Pearls and Guys in Ties Initiative, as I understand the effort of helping young people to learn to "dress for success," I am in full support. I don't view this as an imposition on one's personal style and/or choice regarding hair styles, etc.

However, I view this as an opportunity to teach and discuss with young people the appropriateness of certain attire for career choices, interviewing, etc. In fact, there continues to be a national discourse regarding the manner in which young men wear their pants well below their waist. As adults, although we understand the need and importance of young people having their own "identity," such does not absolve us of our responsibility and obligation as adults to tell them what is so!

I have to do the same with my own son who is a college freshman and who by the way wears his hair in dreadlocks---he graduated from cornrolls. He knows, however, that you don't go to certain places or events without a shirt and tie, and with his pants below his waist.

Thus, we as adults have to teach and confront the real issues governing such with our young people that will have an impact on how they will be perceived as they compete for jobs no longer against their immediate peers, but peers from around the nation and globe. This is an issue that is far greater than "cornrows, and dreadlocks" and even tattoos which have become quite popular over the years. This is about the appropriateness of certain attire at certain times.

Plaintalker: Is this issue different now that Barack and Michelle Obama are setting the tone for style in America, and if so, how do you see young people reacting?

Dr. Gallon: I don't view this issue as being different now that President Obama and the First Lady Michelle are "setting the tone" for style in America. In fact, I somewhat take that view as being somewhat condescending to many who have presented themselves and held to such "standards of style" for decades.

Frederick Douglass, Carter G. Woodson, Booker T. Washington, Mary McCleod Bethune, and Malcolm X all dressed for business and success. Martin Luther King always wore suits and Coretta Scott King truly reflected elegance as the "First Lady" of the Civil Rights Movement. I feel, though, and have to admit that recently they both have positively reminded mainstream America in some cases, and informed America in others, of the elegance, class, style, and positive persona that is in effect mode amongst countless African Americans throughout the nation---all of which are clearly not limited to attire, but reflect their attitude, aptitude, and actions.

Their impact clearly supersedes and must never be, even unintentionally, deduced to attire. I have been an educator for two decades. Personally, I have been wearing suits and shirts and ties to work since my days starting out as a student teacher intern and substitute teacher.

Plaintalker: Plainfield Public Schools staff have generally observed a professional code of dress. Is this something you feel is important for young people to see in their schools? What does it say to them?

Dr. Gallon: Yes, I believe that appropriate attire is important in the Plainfield Public Schools. My position is well known and has been publicly articulated. I believe that attire not only tells our young people something about the "business" of education and seriousness of their learning, it also speaks to us as adults and about the notion of needing to "professionalize" our work.

This applies to all levels of the organization. Plainfield Public Schools, as a business, has been recently compelled to embrace marketplace variables such brand, demand, and competition, to name a few. In doing so, we must all recognize both the spoken and unspoken channels by which we message such on behalf of the District. Appearance in any situation is a first impression and attire is inextricably linked to such. It is something, however, that has to be "personally" embraced, promoted, and valued.

--Bernice Paglia


Anonymous Anonymous said...


More of the same drivel. Plainfield schools need to stop propagating the urban myth that if you just teach kids how to "live" that book learning and such things aren't enough.

Stop dumbing down learning, start early and hold kids to the same standards that you would in other school districts and more of them would succeed.

They're certainly not incapable of learning, but what they're wearing is an unnecessary diversion from what's really important.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is great that the school is teaching the whole child. Keep up the good work Hubbard School. Parents need to get involved.

10:51 PM  

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