Racist “Color-Blind” Dress Codes

by Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, originally published at Sociological Images and Scientopia

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.

Bar Guidelines

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.

Kelly's Dress Code

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!

  • http://melinabee.blogspot.com melina bee

    thank you for the clarification, I am not very familiarwith biker culture

  • XiXi_Top

    The best (sarcasm) part about these codes is that they play RAP music in these bars/pubs. 
    Like say word??…The (usually) white male iPod (serato & vinyl is too ethnic LoL) DJ will play Weezy and Waka but they wouldn’t allow their kind in the place…FOHWTRS

  • miss e

    Forgive me, I’m trying to understand the point of this post.  I think at the end you hint at regulating the vibe of an establishment is a slippery slope, but I’m more wondering what you were implying via points 1, 2, 3, and 4. 

    I’ll make a few points on Madison + UW-Madison.  I’m an African-American woman who just graduated from there in May with a B.A.  I went to UW-Madison for a year and a half – which is more than enough time, if you ask me.

    - UW-Madison + Madison, WI are both extremely white.  Both visually and in-reality.    [I make the distinction between the school and the city because there really is one.  One could say that UW-Madison exists in a pretty extreme bubble.  I would say a painfully low percentage of undergrads spend significant amounts of time off-campus.  And though UW is the center (only blocks away from the State Capitol), there is a lot going on the North, South, East, and West sides of the center -- too often students fail to realize that.  So, in short, the school and the city are DEFINITELY different.  This distinction is important.]

    - There are a good number of Black, Asian (mostly Hmong), and Latino/a folks who live in Madison.  Meaning the town.  What happens though is that they have essentially been sequestered into certain parts of the city (too often lower-income areas), so it’s almost like at first glance they don’t exist.

    - UW-Madison is excruciatingly white.  I say that without reservation.  The school is huge, and there were too many days where I’d walk in a sea of students and only see a handful of people of color.  The school has an embarrassingly high number of race-based blunders and total screw-ups, the most recent being a life-size black Spiderman doll being hung on a noose on a balcony — this occurred in early June, I believe, on one of the most popular streets on campus.  There are people of color, but the communities are small – as someone who came to the school late into my undergraduate education, I found it particularly hard to become a part that community.  At a certain point, friend groups become just too well-established.

    - As of May 2011, Brothers Bar still existed on the corner of University and Lake St.  I heard that it was moving locations, I’m not sure whether it’s done so yet.  Brothers is one of the most popular bars for UW students.  It is only of the only places that has a dance floor that people are almost guaranteed to utilize on the weekends – at these times, they generally play top 40 and 90s music.  As far as Madison party spots go, this place is definitely the most fun.  The only reason is because it’s basically the only place that people don’t just stand around, drink, and talk loudly.  The other place I can think of is Whiskey River (a newer spot), but it’s so country in there I honestly feel alien and so othered that it feels borderline unsafe to me.  I entered the place once, and left within two minutes.  But it’s actually a really popular spot, unsurprisingly.

    - To me (and probably for all those who like to dance and like hip-hop music) Madison nightlife is bearable, at best.  Most bars are for drinking, not dancing.  Essentially NONE play current hip-hop music — you wouldn’t believe that Milwaukee is only 90 minutes away by car — the best Brothers did was play Nelly songs from the early 2000s.  This is a complicated situation, but intentional.  Bar owners will probably say that they’re just trying to cater to their consumers – as if everyone in Madison, WI listens to country and rock, never dances, and just drinks until they drop.  Granted, a lot of students do, but there’s a large population of students and other Madisonians that are being left out.  

    - A spot near the Capitol up on State St. called Frida’s used to be the place for POC Madisonians on the weekends.  Not POC UW students, but often an older crowd – a lot of black and latino/a folks.  It was a really popular spot, probably because it was essentially the ONLY spot for this crowd.  After a few weeks, and possibly a few fights, if you’d walk by Frida’s at closing time, you’d see at least four cop cars just posted.  Even if nothing was happening, they’d be there.  There was heavy security.  It was as if you momentarily entered a twilight zone where police/security were present in quantum.  I’m not sure what happened, but by the end of the school year, Frida’s had in essence closed themselves to that crowd. 

    - Segredo’s is the other place in downtown Madison that attracts a lot of POC Madisonians.  Now a days, there is a dress code there – something about no caps/hats, no white t-shirts…and some other stipulations that are very clearly either trying to prevent a certain dress style (read: a specific  group of POC folks) from entering, or forcing them to adhere to a different standard of dress.  Probably the most striking thing about this dynamic is that once a place seems designated for POC Madisonians, you will NEVER see white people, let alone white students there.  You’d actually be pretty hard pressed to find POC UW students there as well.  This doesn’t include times where people have rented out the space for party, and then of course, students will enter.

    - This post has gotten extremely long, but I want to take a moment to talk about Whiskey River.  I read an article in a student newspaper (link is below) that kind of talked about this issue, and I recall something about the Whiskey River owners being very vocal and proud about the fact that it was an establishment that plays NO HIP-HOP.  There very much seems to be a connection between dress, hip-hop, and assumptions about POC (particularly black) folks + and then potential danger they pose.  The equation works something like this:

    POC = like hip-hop and wear baggy/saggy clothes, white tees, and caps —> = violence  HENCE
    no violence = no hip-hop, no baggy/saggy dress = no POC.  no POC, in the crudest terms, means no violence.

    You must understand that this is all implied, it’s implicit, it’s under the surface but it’s most definitely there.  I felt it every weekend when there were essentially no spots that catered to my music tastes and night preferences b/c they were trying to avoid hip-hop like the plague.  I saw black men not get in to places like Brothers because their dress did not adhere to the dress code.  It all essentially got very tiring.  I should say that this dress code affected men MUCH MORE than it did women…in fact, I don’t recall ever having to adhere to some kind of dress code.  Definitely not because some students dressed some kinda way…  But that’s another story.

    There’s so much more I could add to this.  I should say that probably the most popular queer night spot in the city, Plan B, also initiated a dress code like this (no white tees, no saggy pants, etc).  I believe they believed that eliminating homophobic people from the club would be best done by regulating dress (read between the lines, y’all).  This policy got MAJOR flack – particularly from queer POC and other enlightened white folks – so much that they discontinued the policy.  This was very recent, maybe  sometimes in the last two or three months of the school year.  I believe they have a different dress code in place, not sure whether it’s much better.  

    The main point is there all these things (dress, music, violence/trouble/unsafe-ness, race) – they are tied, and not in a way that makes one feel good.  

    I recommend this article in the Badger Herald for further reading.  The author is much more coherent than I am: http://badgerherald.com/news/2011/05/03/concerns_over_race_a.php  

    I’m sure you all know much more about Madison, Wisconsin than you ever hoped to. : )

  • Anonymous

    I’m gonna open  Bar and name it, “Us, Not Them”, the dress code is as following: No tight pants, No tight shirts, Shoes must not be older than 4 months old (if sneakers), If you wear a t shirt it must be plain white, No facial piercings, Hair for men if not cut close must be dreadlocks and all who don’t like it can go straight to hell.

  • Pingback: Are Dress Codes Racist? « Clutch Magazine

  • nicthommi

    I also think that what counts  as “baggy” probably correlates to the skin tone of the wearer.  Let’s not pretend as though the outfits worn by the black college students, even if the come straight from a J. Crew catalog, are not deemed “out of code” even when they are not.

    I don’t see how any black person could go through 4 years of college and not see selective enforcement of rules, or notice that minor infractions by black students were attacked with much more vigor than major infractions by white students.

    So I can remember that at my Ivy League school and its equally selective neighbor down the street, black college parties, which involved little to no alcohol, would be regularly shut down even as parties full of white, underaged drinkers raged on.  Sure, the EXCUSE might have been that it was after the curfew for sanctioned parties, but I was never at a beer bash that got busted, and they were super noisy plus involved a lot of mess and a bit of mayhem and damage.

    You make up vague rules and your doorkeeper can enforce then as he sees fit.  It’s not about what you are or are not wearing.  It’s coded racism and it’s written in a way that makes it totally subjective.  I’m sure you’d manage to get turned down at this bar no matter how preppy you look.

  • nicthommi

    I also think that what counts  as “baggy” probably correlates to the skin tone of the wearer.  Let’s not pretend as though the outfits worn by the black college students, even if the come straight from a J. Crew catalog, are not deemed “out of code” even when they are not.

    I don’t see how any black person could go through 4 years of college and not see selective enforcement of rules, or notice that minor infractions by black students were attacked with much more vigor than major infractions by white students.

    So I can remember that at my Ivy League school and its equally selective neighbor down the street, black college parties, which involved little to no alcohol, would be regularly shut down even as parties full of white, underaged drinkers raged on.  Sure, the EXCUSE might have been that it was after the curfew for sanctioned parties, but I was never at a beer bash that got busted, and they were super noisy plus involved a lot of mess and a bit of mayhem and damage.

    You make up vague rules and your doorkeeper can enforce then as he sees fit.  It’s not about what you are or are not wearing.  It’s coded racism and it’s written in a way that makes it totally subjective.  I’m sure you’d manage to get turned down at this bar no matter how preppy you look.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cocojams-Jambalayah/100000590546331 Cocojams Jambalayah

    Another key point this post makes is that these dress codes are often only enforced to keep out Black men:

    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.”

    Decoding that quote-”Meanwhile, they let in students wearing UW sports jerseys”… means “they let in White students…:”

    It may help to know that the author of this post is a White Sociology professor.

    Btw, it’s interesting to read the different ways the comments went about this subject and related subjects at the other blogs where this post was featured-blogs where it appears there aren’t as many People of Color commenting as on Racialicious.   

  • Morenaclara

    It means no Brown People.

  • Morenaclara

    It means no Brown People.

  • Lele

    I am STUNNED at the amount of people on this thread who seem to be missing the  point of this article. The implication is not that all African Americans dress in this fashion, but that restricting this dress code means there is a negative association to what is more likely associated with African Americans than any other race.  Whether white people approiate this style is completely irrelevant. Look less ‘other’, or else.

  • Lele

    I am STUNNED at the amount of people on this thread who seem to be missing the  point of this article. The implication is not that all African Americans dress in this fashion, but that restricting this dress code means there is a negative association to what is more likely associated with African Americans than any other race.  Whether white people approiate this style is completely irrelevant. Look less ‘other’, or else.

  • Lele

    Yes! I was read a GQ article where one of their writers went to Amsterdam to work at a marijuana cafe for a day. He made mention of the giant sign reading ”NO HATS OR HIP-HOP MUSIC ALLOWED”- specifically made for the African immigrants in south-east Amsterdam. Totes not racist, though.

  • Lele

    Yes! I was read a GQ article where one of their writers went to Amsterdam to work at a marijuana cafe for a day. He made mention of the giant sign reading ”NO HATS OR HIP-HOP MUSIC ALLOWED”- specifically made for the African immigrants in south-east Amsterdam. Totes not racist, though.

    • AnthroLing

      I would also add people from the Dutch Caribbean and Surinam, which is interesting since Dutch Caribbean people have Dutch passports and are therefore inherently Dutch.  Unfortunately, oftentimes they might not be viewed as a Dutch citizen but rather as a foreigner.

      • nicthommi

        Non-white immigrants and children of those immigrants have this problem all over Europe.  It’s an awful conundrum.  But very analgous to this situation.
        Many European countries love to make the issue with non-white immigrants one of assimilation. But the children and grandchildren of these people are still excluded societally despite speaking the language and being assimilated. Many no longer know ther languages of their ancestors or have never been to any other country.  Yet they are continually treated as outsiders. 
        A subjective bar is set that they can never attain because they don’t have white skin.  But coded language is always used and they pretend like they are these perfect, post-racial societies. 

      • nicthommi

        Non-white immigrants and children of those immigrants have this problem all over Europe.  It’s an awful conundrum.  But very analgous to this situation.
        Many European countries love to make the issue with non-white immigrants one of assimilation. But the children and grandchildren of these people are still excluded societally despite speaking the language and being assimilated. Many no longer know ther languages of their ancestors or have never been to any other country.  Yet they are continually treated as outsiders. 
        A subjective bar is set that they can never attain because they don’t have white skin.  But coded language is always used and they pretend like they are these perfect, post-racial societies. 

  • Eva

    Is this any different from no shoes, no shirt, no service?  Honestly, I’ve seen just as many young white men in baggy pants, hats turned sideways as young black men.  However, it is racist if only young black men get kicked out of the clubs for wearing those clothes while young white men don’t. 

    But you do need dress codes.  I had one in the place I used to work, “No booty shorts or thigh high skirts or dresses” and I worked in a hospital and yes, many people would come to work as if they were going to the beach and I told them all to put on a lab coat, no matter what color they were. 

  • Eva

    Is this any different from no shoes, no shirt, no service?  Honestly, I’ve seen just as many young white men in baggy pants, hats turned sideways as young black men.  However, it is racist if only young black men get kicked out of the clubs for wearing those clothes while young white men don’t. 

    But you do need dress codes.  I had one in the place I used to work, “No booty shorts or thigh high skirts or dresses” and I worked in a hospital and yes, many people would come to work as if they were going to the beach and I told them all to put on a lab coat, no matter what color they were. 

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    Yikes! This post is more racist/ offensive than those dress code signs. You assume that we Black people are a monolith. And that we all have the same cultural norms. The truth is that there are as many ways to be Black as there are Black people.  

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    Yikes! This post is more racist/ offensive than those dress code signs. You assume that we Black people are a monolith. And that we all have the same cultural norms. The truth is that there are as many ways to be Black as there are Black people.  

  • Shannon

    Crommunist You seem to contradict yourself with your question at the end implying that if African Americas speak proper english they are satisfying the white standard. I was born in Texas and lived in Georgia for 8 years, although grew up in the south I have never had an accent. Not having an accent doesnt make me any less of an Texan or southerner and doesn’t define my race.

    Now lets be honest when you see a list like the one posted at Brothers the first thing that comes to mind unfortunately is a black male. In all honesty you can’t blame people for their ignorance when we constantly entertain their false perception of black males in the media. From what they see they associate baggy clothes, doo rags, and sideways caps to the bad guys on tv shows and local news. It is sad we have to defined in such a way when there are so many of us that don’t fall under this stereotype.

    I’m sure if a famous celebrity dressed in the same manner would not have a problem getting in.

  • http://profiles.google.com/apgrant2 Andre Grant

    I think you all are missing the point. Sure, I’m black and sure I don’t wear any of the clothing listed on the sign but let’s be honest shall we? We know all of the pieces of clothing listed on the sign are associated with African American culture. Equally we know that African American culture is associated with gang-culture and violence and blah blah blah ,well, in America anyway.  So I think the point is that whether the people being kicked out of the bars are African American or not the implication is that to even be associated with African American culture as it is negatively defined in any way is reason for non admission. That fact makes the sign overtly racist. Whether it be Korea, or Kansas City or NYC or Wisconsin this sign implies explicitly that if we perceive you as participants in wearing clothing typically sported by African Americans you will not be allowed inside. The author was spot on. 

  • Daisy Kingston

    The opposite version of this is the “no colors” sign I see posted on the front of many “biker” bars.

  • http://twitter.com/lfresh lfresh

    ah…welcome to New York City

  • Catherine

    Kelly’s isn’t the only bar in Kansas City with a similar dress code, but where it’s gotten a lot of attention is at the Power and Light District (sort of a downtown entertainment center that tries to cater to tourists and suburban whites).

  • http://crommunist.wordpress.com/ Crommunist

    This dress code issue is not always coded racism. I did my graduate school at a medium-sized city in rural Ontario, and many of the bars there have similar dress codes. What the town DIDN’T have was any black people (myself and a couple of others excepted). They did have a major problem with gangs, though, which is why they kept the dress code.

    I then moved to Vancouver, which again has an infinitesimal black population. The dress codes exist here too, oddly enough with Ed Hardy, Tap-Out, Affliction, and other MMA shirt brands on the list of forbidden attire. Intrigued, I asked the bouncer why and he told me that those were often gang identifiers, and they just didn’t need the hassles.

    ALL OF THIS BEING SAID… if it’s enforced selectively (as it is in your examples) and to the detriment of one racial group, then it’s obviously being used as a proxy for racism.

    Still… as a black guy who doesn’t wear baggy pants, doo rags, crooked caps or hoods, it’s not exactly pleasant (or accurate) to be told that I’m “defering to white standards”. I noticed a lot of correctly spelled words in your article – are you trying to talk like a white person to be accepted into “their” journalistic standard?

    • http://twitter.com/citizhateme Lady Shasha

      I agree. It is actually offensive to me as a black person to have my culture reduced to baggy pants and the position of a baseball cap, as if there is only one way to be black. It also assumes that all black people are economically disadvantaged. We are disproportionally so, I acknowledge that, but it should not just be assumed.

      On a shallow note, I’m tired of going out and seeing rusty underwear. Although where I live guys aren’t even wearing baggy pants, they just sag their skinny jeans, which I wish would be over already.

      I just want to clarify as well that I’m for dress codes in some places because it does sometimes help keep out as I call them “people who don’t have nothing to lose”, but only if this is applied across the board. The article states that these places were only enforcing this with black people. That ticks me off because roided up dude bros can ruin a party just as fast as wannabe gangsters. Both are bad for business.

      • Anonymous

        sidenote: I hate it when i see guys sagging their skinny jeans. it looks like they’re wearing a diaper or something. 

    • Jmacosta35

      Great point! I personally don’t see the signs as “racist,” it just seems like the bars want to have a certain atmosphere and attract a certain group.  Let’s be honest:  Excessively baggy pants worn by someone of any race (especially when showing undergarments) is definitely NOT classy!  

    • Sewere

      ” it’s not exactly pleasant (or accurate) to be told that I’m “defering to white standards”

      Really is that what you read? I’m another black dude who doesn’t usually wear baggy pants, doo rags, crooked caps or hoods, but there is a difference between being told I need to dress a certain way to gain acceptance and dressing the way I like. Case in point, I sometimes wear a rasta cap when I don’t want to wear my dreads in tail, but 9 times out of 10, when I go to certain clubs/lounges, I’m always told to take them off, even when it’s clear that it’s not a “crooked cap or hood”

      Also this “I noticed a lot of correctly spelled words in your article – are you
      trying to talk like a white person to be accepted into “their”
      journalistic standard”

      If you think you just proved how ridiculous it is to make broad generalizations, you didn’t. All you did was come off as petty and foolish because it assumes bad faith on the part of the author of the post and it assumes that black folks only speak on way.

  • JustinPBG

    I remember when I was living in South Korea (as a teacher), there were a lot of US soldiers stationed there. The officers, in my opinion, were very kind and even-keeled, but a lot of the enlisted folks liked to start fights for no reason. (Shrug).

    Anyway, so this one bar, “Old Skool,” was mostly a hip-hop place, and, they started getting annoyed about all the fights (we all did). The people fighting were white, black, every color. But when they decided to “crack down,” it was only the black folks who disappeared from the bar. (I’m black, and they often gave me trouble until I proved I was a teacher and not a soldier).

    So yeah, this doesn’t surprise me.

    They had similar signs up too but I’m afraid I don’t have any pics offhand.

  • JustinPBG

    I remember when I was living in South Korea (as a teacher), there were a lot of US soldiers stationed there. The officers, in my opinion, were very kind and even-keeled, but a lot of the enlisted folks liked to start fights for no reason. (Shrug).

    Anyway, so this one bar, “Old Skool,” was mostly a hip-hop place, and, they started getting annoyed about all the fights (we all did). The people fighting were white, black, every color. But when they decided to “crack down,” it was only the black folks who disappeared from the bar. (I’m black, and they often gave me trouble until I proved I was a teacher and not a soldier).

    So yeah, this doesn’t surprise me.

    They had similar signs up too but I’m afraid I don’t have any pics offhand.