The Experience That Taught Me Blackface & Klan Hoods Are Forms of Racial Terror

For the past year or so, I’ve been tinkering with a short essay on my earliest encounters with the Ku Klux Klan and the ways in which Klan violence is intimately linked to my childhood and my earliest understandings of myself as black x girl. You see, I grew up just a 2-hour car ride from southern Indiana Klan country.

I didn’t have any plans to publish this essay. . . . it was more of a writing exercise, #wannaBauthor and all.

But the photograph of Virginia governor Ralph Northam dressed in blackface (he’s now claiming it’s not him) alongside a person wearing a Klan hood + robe pierced my spirit. The image symbolizes a long history of racial terror in the United States. So much so that I cannot ever see impersonating the Klan or dressing in blackface as  simply youthful self-expression. It’s racist. full stop.

Around the same time that Northam was submitting the Klanface photo for the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, I was an elementary school student, taking a family road trip through southern Indiana that turned disastrous. Quickly.



Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page, 1984.


I’m sharing the rough draft of my road trip story here.


I was somewhere between asleep and awake. I had dozed off shortly after we’d left my godmother’s apartment in Bloomington, Indiana—where she and my mother had been college students at Indiana University more than a decade earlier. It was Christmas Eve, 1987. We were cruising up Indiana State Highway 37 in my mom’s vintage 1973 cobalt blue Ford Mustang, making the trek back up to our hometown, Fort Wayne, Indiana, so we could celebrate Christmas with our family. The sounds of Walter Hawkins’ Love Alive II, a tape mom kept in steady rotation, was blaring through the car’s speakers.

Over Hawkins’ “Be Grateful,” I could hear my mom, in the driver’s seat, bickering with my aunt, who was riding shotgun. My eight-year-old spirit registered a panic in my aunt’s voice that I had never heard from her before.

“Girl, we can’t stop! We’re in Martinsville,” my aunt said.

Mom firmly told her that we had to stop because the car’s headlights were out. I looked out the window, which was still slightly iced over. Darkness had chased us down, leaving nothing but a midnight blue mass of sky. There was only pitch black in front of the Mustang, where long cylinders of white light should have been emanating to guide us up the highway. Even still, my aunt was willing to risk the possibility of sliding off the slick, winding road rather than stop in Martinsville, Indiana.

I was too young to know it then, but this was the cause of the panic: We were a car of two black women and a black girl in a sundown town in southern Indiana, after dark, having car trouble . . . . on Christmas Eve.

Martinsville had the reputation of being the epicenter of Klan terror in Indiana.

I had never heard of Martinsville before, but I was intrigued by this infamous place that could reduce a grown woman to near tears. I jolted up in my seat, butting into the conversation with my usual precocity. “What’s Martinsville? What’s wrong with the car? What are you scared of, Aunt Janice? Are we gonna make it home in time to open my Christmas gifts?”

No one answered me.

We pulled into a mom and pop gas station. A string of pathetic colored Christmas lights framed the shop window. The clerk on duty, an older white man, peeked his head out. Seeing our dark bodies emerging from the car, he slowly walked outside with a perplexed look on his face. Because black folks knew to steer clear of Martinsville, whites in Martinsville had become accustomed to never seeing “a black” in real life.

My mother explained what had brought us to his establishment on this crisp winter evening. They performed an awkward dance of human politeness as the clerk led us into the gas station so mom could call my father collect. He offered us space to sit inside while we waited for my father to arrive. Aunt Janice was fixing her mouth to say “hell no!” when my mother jumped in and politely declined his offer, saying we would wait in the car. Mom and aunt Janice poured cups of the shop’s bitter coffee to help them stay alert. We would be stranded in the heartland of the Ku Klux Klan for the next couple hours.

We made our way back to the car.


No one bothered us, not even the clerk, who had returned to his mundane shop duties. But my mother and aunt began sharing stories with me—some joyous, some utterly terrifying—about what is was like to be college students in Klan country during the peak years of the Black Power movement.

Up until then, the only depictions I’d seen of the Klan were in films, like the scene in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) where Klan members attack Billie Holiday’s (Diana Ross) tour bus, hitting her in the eye with the butt of a wooden stake. Here I was now hearing of my own family’s encounters with these enigmas in white hoods.

In 1968, just four years before my mother arrived on IU’s campus, a twenty-one-year-old black encyclopedia saleswoman named Carol Jenkins was brutally murdered in Martinsville by someone believed to be a Klan member (turns out he was). The murder went unsolved for more than three decades. Meanwhile, hundreds of young black women like my mother left their homes each year to attend IU, the specter of Jenkins’ murder a constant reminder that they could never and would never feel or be safe.

My mom’s brother, my uncle Howard, was also beaten bloody in Martinsville when he, not being from the area, stopped to get food on his way to visit mom.

The campus wasn’t even a refuge from anti-black harassment. The KKK would secure permits from the city, which allowed them to march down the public streets that run through IU’s campus. University police officers would harass black students for gathering on the yard in groups considered “too large.” White professors assumed that black students were not prepared for the rigors of college, often grading them more harshly than their white counterparts.

Many of these stories of racial discrimination on campus were chronicled in the IU Arbutus yearbook, given titles such as “Black Life in the Ivory Tower.” These stories mirrored those written on the pages of Essence in the early ’70s by and about black students at predominantly white institutions.


But in the quiet spaces of their dorm rooms and apartments, mom and her peers could dance out their rage, they could style out their rage. I could hear it in mom’s and aunt Janice’s voice, in the ways they told their stories, but it would not truly sink in until I was much older: survival then—as it is now—was about stealing moments of intoxicating pleasure amidst many more that were singed by violence.

I heard tales of black, sweaty bodies doing dances like “the dawg” and “the hustle” at the annual Omega Psi Phi Mardi Gras party. Mom and her friends would go decked out in elephant-leg pants—bout the widest bell bottoms you’ll ever see—and lace-front dresses and knee-high boots, with their Afros picked just so. Those parties were safe havens where young black folks, who were few in number on campus, could dance and listen to soul and funk tracks. Unapologetically young and black.

My mom and my aunt had gotten into a rhythm, telling their stories –feeding off of each other like a well-trained performance duo. Black girl hand gestures abounded. Aunt Janice would let out her signature screeching cackle when things got really funny. Mom’s voice would boom when she told one of her “bet not no one mess with me” stories. They laughed as they tried to remember the name of “so-and-so’s boyfriend” who did “woopty woop” at “such-and-such’s” apartment “that one night.” I learned of the men my mom loved long before she and my father became a thing.

My mom, circa 1968

I would interject here and there with questions, wanting more details to add to the mental movie of the past that I was directing in my head. But for the most part, I knew to keep quiet because something big, something important was happening here. This was more than a mere passing of the time. This was two black women trying to work through fear and trauma, sharing their vulnerability with me, a girl of a different era, a different generation, but of the same blood. Through them, I experienced the full range of black emotion, their stories offering a context for my aunt’s fear earlier that evening. It came from a real place.


By the time my father dashed up to the gas station in his big, mint green Mercury Cougar to rescue his wife and daughter, I felt a little older, less innocent. I had come face-to-face with white supremacy, learning at a young age that people will do anything—including taking a life—in order to maintain some semblance of power. It was a rite of passage that, even then, I knew my white peers did not have to experience. Their white privilege shielded them from ever having to learn about the real American horror story. Yet, the trauma of the past was now etched into my skin like ritual scarification. To be a black girl in this world meant pain would be part of the experience.

But my passage also taught me about black resilience, black joy, black creativity. Something about sharing the tiny space of the old Mustang with my mom and my aunt bonded us. For those few hours, we were on equal footing. All of us scared, and them telling stories to keep the haints away. The stories were our survival. The air never went silent.




Michelle Obama’s Gold Triangle Earrings


Yes, Michelle!

In an essay entitled “She Slays: Michelle Obama And The Power of Dressing Like You Mean it”  in the forthcoming book The Meaning of Michelle, I wrote:

“[Michelle Obama] had some nice fashion ‘moments’ in the first four years, but in the second term, she clearly announced she came to slay! She and her team started taking major style risks, and her style explicitly referenced working-class Black American sartorial traditions. No longer was she seeking to blend in, she was making jaw-dropping fashion statements. Her earrings and other accessories became more opulent, her outfits more fitted, her hair more bouffant. She proved she still had a lot of ‘South Side Chi’ in her!” 

So imagine my joy when I saw the above image of Obama last week in the New York Times Style Magazine. Those triangle earrings. Two pieces of crafted gold communicate so much about Lady O’s unapologetic style transformation over the past eight years.

She came.

She slayed.

She conquered.

Check out my full essay in The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own. ed. Veronica Chambers (Preface by Ava DuVernay). New York: St. Martin’s, January 2017.

Haute Couture In The ‘Ivory Tower’

Southern Methodist professor Willard Spiegelman, from New York Times “Class Acts” spread. Courtesy: New York Times

A New York Times Magazine spread titled “Class Acts,” featuring six professors styled in designer fashions, recently resurfaced in the social media sphere largely due to the media’s budding interest in fashion in unexpected workplaces. Initially, I was thrilled to see the NYT acknowledge that we professors could be stylish, too. But, as I removed my rose-colored Burberry glasses to examine the slide show again, I saw that there were no professors that looked like me. No professors of color.

I instantly took to my Twitter and Facebook pages to post the “Class Acts” spread for my diverse group of colleagues to weigh in on. Their responses ranged from a sarcastic “… apparently black professors can’t be fashionable” to an admonishing “A truly pathetically pale slide show … shame on you NYTimes.” I felt vindicated that they shared my concerns that faculty of color were not represented. We began comprising our own list of “fierce and fly” faculty of color, including (but certainly not limited to) Mimi Thi Nguyen, Darlene Clark Hine, Davarian Baldwin, Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Siobhan Carter-David, Treva Lindsey, and Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar.r

But even after our insightful social-media venting session, I was still bothered by the spread. And it wasn’t simply because “we” weren’t included. It was because the spread ignored the battles related to dress and adornment that African Americans have endured, both inside and outside of the academy. A brief look at major moments in Black history reveals how battles over race, class, and adornment have majorly influenced mainstream American fashion trends.r

From slavery to the present, African Americans and other people of color have used fashion as a form of cultural-political resistance and creative self-expression. The “Class Acts” photo shoot–with its Dries Van Noten dresses and its Brooks Brothers suits–erases this long history. Under the system of slavery, whites dictated how people of African descent dressed, purchasing inexpensive fabrics such as denim and osnaburg in dull colors for them to wear. To develop their own identity outside of that as laborers, bond women often sewed their own clothes to wear to church—garments of more brilliant colors made from materials they purchased with their own earnings.r

7737490814_ee2092cea4_mAfter emancipation, some former bondwomen and men began wearing flamboyant outfits full of color as a means of resistance. Though many black Americans adhered to styles that reflected the mores of whites in an effort to assimilate into white society, they created their own dress aesthetic by using non-traditional fabrics and unusual cuts to embellish their looks. Over time, their innovative modifications morphed into dramatic fashions like the zoot suit (with its long suit jacket and tightly tapered pants), which came to symbolize youth rebellion, jazz culture, and black and Latino urban life in the interwar period. These styles were then appropriated by mainstream American and European fashion designers.

During the Civil Rights Movement, a politics of adornment was employed to garner media attention for the movement. Images of black activists dressed in their “Sunday best” attire (dresses, cardigans, pearls, and suits and ties) being attacked by white segregationists highlighted the barbaric nature of American racism and the system of Jim Crow. Wearing such fine clothes was a subversive act, in the U.S. South especially. Dressing nicer than working-class whites placed African Americans in danger of being beaten, arrested, or lynched because their clothing was an outward sign of their challenge to southern social order.r

By the late 1960s, young African Americans had ditched the Sunday best look and the integrationist politics for a more radical, African-inspired “soul style.” Organizations such as the Black Panther Party and countless black youth in cities across the country donned Afros, dashikis, miniskirts, and ornate jewelry to showcase their cultural pride and their political solidarity. Black women in particular used the soul style look to challenge conventional notions of feminine propriety, which mandated that they wear their hair straightened and dress in conservative clothing. The mainstream fashion industry responded—as it had in the early twentieth century—by appropriating this politically-influenced soul style, selling the look everywhere from department stores to haute couture fashion boutiques.r

Clothing still remains an important political tool in the struggle for social justice in communities of color. After Trayvon Martin—an unarmed black Florida teen dressed in a hoodie–was viciously murdered by George Zimmerman, people of various races, classes, nationalities, and genders began wearing hoodies in solidarity, organizing “Million Hood” Marches across the globe to call for justice for Trayvon.r

The NYT editors ignored this narrative of American fashion that is entrenched in histories of racial oppression and brutality. Instead, the fashions selected serve as a sartorial shorthand for a politics of adornment within the “ivory tower,” which bolsters notions of white privilege and high-class refinement. Not only is this a dated image of the academy, it is one that effaces the reality that, everyday, faculty of color use fashion (along with their teaching, research, and social justice activism) to challenge discrimination and prejudice within the academy and beyond.r

The spread presumes that when a professor walks into a classroom she is a blank slate, a model to be adorned in fine clothing and given an identity. The reality is that scholars of color, women, and other groups whose bodies are read as non-normative have never been able to check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door. As soon as we walk onto campus, our bodies are read in a certain (often troubling) manner by our students, our colleagues, and school administrators. Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves. Therefore, we are highly aware of how we adorn our bodies. And, like our foremothers and forefathers who innovated with American “street fashions,” we, too, use our fashion sense to define ourselves, our professionalism, and our research and teaching agendas on our own terms. As a result, we are actively dismantling the so-called Ivory Tower.r
Portrait of the author, taken in Ft. Wayne, Ind. Photo: Kimisha Ellis. Courtesy of the author.r

Portrait of the author, taken in Ft. Wayne, Ind. Photo: Kimisha Ellis. Courtesy of the author.
Portrait of the author, taken in Ft. Wayne, Ind. Photo: Kimisha Ellis. Courtesy of the author.

So my disappointment was not just about the fact that “we” as professors of color were left out of the spread because the larger issue at stake is not simply about professors. It’s about the seemingly innocuous ways that popular culture is used to obscure and omit important histories related to communities of color.r

What the “Class Act” spread has done, however, is illustrate that the struggles over race, gender, and dress within the academy and those waged everyday in neighborhoods across the country intersect. We need to have some serious conversations about how fashion and adornment politics have been and continue to be a critical part of the black struggle for social justice. Not having these conversations means ignoring histories of human rights struggles in this country.

Ava DuVernay Directs Miu Miu short film THE DOOR

img-miumiu3_143814234419.jpg_category_carousel_thumbDirector Ava DuVernay’s latest offering is a short film with a rich visual landscape and a beautiful cast of black women. Clocking in at just under 10mins, THE DOOR is an example of the harmonious way in which Haute Couture can intersect with black women-centered cinema. The Miu Miu pieces–part of the House of Prada–tell a new narrative as they hug and caress the black female body. Set to a neo-soul soundtrack, DuVernay’s luxe cinematic eye takes us on a journey with Gabrielle Union and her sista friends (Adepero Oduye, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Alfre Woodard, and Goapele) as they comfort Union after a heartbreak.

Conversation Piece: Queer Fashion on Campus

Originally published at The Feminist Wire

During the 2012 presidential election, there was much conversation among journalists, bloggers, and activists about the innovative ways students were using social media to mobilize for candidates supporting LGBT rights and other progressive issues. But, LGBT students—particularly LGBT students of color—were not only using these platforms to fight for legislative changes. They were also using the digital world to engaged in forms of embodied activism. Through tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest, college-age folks highlighted the diverse ways they use clothing to (re)define and (re)articulate what it means to be a self-identified queer person of color on their campuses and in other social spaces where their dressed bodies are read as non-normative. Students use the word “queer” in some instances to define their  sexual orientation but also to describe how they consciously disrupt gender norms or to reflect their eclectic tastes in fashion, food, and music…or as a combination of all of the above. Clothing in particular is a conversation piece. It communicates a message that is then (mis)interpreted by onlookers. I’ve been analyzing these lively public conversations about dress and identity politics on my campus.

Many students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are actively engaged in conversations on the politics of adornment for queer students. For example, the day after the November presidential election, the UMass Daily Collegianran an article critiquing the mainstream fashion industry’s use of the term “lesbian chic” as a means to sell clothing to a growing queer market. That same month, one of my students asked me to meet with a group of student activists to discuss issues of dress politics for marginalized groups on campus. I realized the importance of using my classroom as a space where students could discuss campus dynamics and the social implications of their clothing choices.

That semester, I was teaching a new course called Feminisms and Fashion, which attracted students from four of the Five College schools. In class, we reflected on constructions of queerness and the political potential of fashion. During one of our class meetings, I wrote the names of the Five College institutions on the board: Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, and UMass Amherst. I asked the students to describe the style of dress that characterizes the students at each school. They earnestly debated with each other about the stereotypical sartorial styling at each institution. Here were their conclusions:

Amherst College—rich, preppy look: Ralph Lauren, khakis, and boat shoes

Hampshire College—hippie, crunchy granola

Mt. Holyoke—rich, preppy, equestrian look, similar to Amherst College

Smith College—rich but rebellious, non-conforming, queer aesthetic

UMass—hodgepodge of the other colleges’ styles, depending on what area of campus you’re in

The students acknowledged that their conclusions were generalizations. However, they also realized their dressed bodies produce social meaning and that terms such as “preppy,” “hippie,” and “queer” are informed by social constructions of race, class, and gender. This helped them understand why the clothing of queer folks of color is often read as deviant or socially non-conforming, even when the wearer is dressed similarly to their non-QPOC peers.

Often, we professors have great discussions in our classes or we receive brilliant student work, but unfortunately those experiences remain within the walls of the institution. I want my students to use the analytical tools they learn in my classes to produce thoughtful social/digital media content that allows them to add their voices to the (inter)national debates about identity and the possibilities and limitations of embodied activism. The students in my Fashion course had to produce feminist multimedia projects (ie: blogs, videos, look books, etc.) that contained original content. A third of the projects focused on the topic of “queer fashion” on college campuses. One student, Juliana, conducted ten interviews with queer-identifying students in Massachusetts and her home state of Florida to show the range in definitions of queer and the variations in personal style among queer students. She photographed her own fashion shoots featuring the student models she interviewed. Juliana posted her content on her blogQueer Eyes Queer Words.

Chloe Collins, an African American senior at Smith College, was so intrigued by our discussion on the “queer aesthetic” at Smith that she decided to produce the “QPOC Dressed Body Project,” a series of video interviews with four queer people of color at Smith. Chloe’s interviewees (Mei, Nandi, Paige, and Tejal) touch on salient issues facing QPOC on Smith’s campus and in broader society. The project enabled Chloe to generate conversation on her elite campus about the politics of dress and the specific challenges QPOC students face. I interviewed Chloe about the motivation and methodology for her project. Be sure to watch her videos below.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to do the “QPOC Dressed Body Project”?

I am a Smith College senior with concentrations in the fields of Studies of Women and Gender, English Language and Literature, and Book Studies. The “QPOC Dressed Body Project” arose out of our class discussion of Five College stereotypes. I was interested in the construction of queerness at Smith, what Smith stereotypes include, and how queer people of color see themselves in relation to “the face” of Smith queer. Using Smith as a case study, I aimed to explore how environment informs body adornment, how dress is used to convey information about identity, and how identity is interpreted and read on the queer POC dressed body. My first step in putting my project into motion was creating a tumblr, which helped me engage with others who were talking about QPOC identity and dress. Conducting video interviews seemed like an effective way to gather narratives while simultaneously giving my audience an interesting visual component. During the interviews, I asked the interviewees questions including: How do you define “queer”? Do you think there is a “queer uniform” or aesthetic at Smith? If so, describe that aesthetic. Do you actively play into or push against that aesthetic? Do you think your QPOC body is read differently than your non-POC peers?

Based on your interviewees’ responses, what did you conclude?

After conducting my interviews and re-watching the video content, it became clear to me that the project participants viewed their queer and POC identities as inextricable. I gathered that because they were automatically “othered,” the interviewees used their QPOC identity and clothing choices to defy norms and stereotypes, whether they did so intentionally or not. Though most of my video content is directly related to Smith culture, it is applicable to other similar social spaces. Looking at Smith as a microcosm allowed me to place my findings on QPOC students’ engagement with adornment politics in a wider context on my tumblr.

Chloe’s project is part of a broader conversation in the digiverse documenting the ways in which queer folks of color are using their dressed bodies as an extension of their identity politics and their activism. The Queer Women of Color Media Wire is an advocacy organization that addresses issues related to beauty and body image. Rock and Soul band The CooLots (pictured above) use the web to celebrate diversity and self-expression through music and dress. Such projects are a reminder of how digital and social media can facilitate students’ entry into these debates.  I consider myself an ally for my students as they address the social justice issues that matter to their generation. We—as a digital milieu of progressive thinkers, activists, and cultural producers—have a responsibility to keep these conversations alive in order to generate new questions and new approaches to addressing issues concerning marginalized groups.

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A Fashionista Asks: What to Wear on the First Day of School?

Originally published at The Learning Curve Woman


It’s that time of year when parents across the country head to department stores to buy their children new school clothes (wasn’t it great to have someone else bankroll your wardrobe?). I remember my school days, and I recall that school shopping inevitably led to anxiety over what to wear on the first day of school. This anxiety was heightened once I got to high school. As teens, we believed our clothing was a powerful form of social capital and self expression. As a result, the first day of school was a veritable New York Fashion Week!

I am particularly excited (and admittedly a little anxious) about what I’m going to wear on the first day of school this year because I am starting a new job at a new university. As a professor who studies fashion history and body politics, I don’t think it’s shocking that I love clothes. Now that I’ll be making a lil’ (emphasis on lil’) bit more money, I can afford to buy some stylish back to school gear. My issue is: I work in a field where—unlike the hallowed halls of high school or the fashion world—dressing fashionably is not rewarded or encouraged.

“Appropriate” attire for professors is a very provocative topic among my colleagues. A woman professor quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Professors: Hot At Their Own Risk, states, “If you look as if you spend more time in the beauty parlor than in the library, that’s going to be a problem.” I’ve found that stylish hair and dress are even more noticeable (and deemed more problematic) on women professors of color. It is because we look vastly different from our white male, colleagues who—despite institutions’ diversity initiatives—remain the “face” of the professoriate. Those who commented on the Chronicle piece (many who identified themselves as professors) confirmed this notion. They were highly critical of a black, female professor featured in the article who admitted that she purposefully dressed in stylish attire. One commenter retorted, “We’re not there to be ‘hot,’ we’re there to teach.”  But, why can’t we do both?

Though I don’t necessarily aim to be “hot,” I do aim to be fashion-forward. Outside of work, I would describe my style as “flirty-modern-funky.” I wear a lot of color. I love pinks, yellows, and light blues. I recently purchased a pair of bright salmon pink skinny jeans that I can’t wait to wear. I also love wearing cool prints and bold stripes. Playful shoes (usually flats or kitten heels for practicality), quirky glasses, and a stylish handbag complete my look. My number one fashion rule is that there are no rules! Virtually anything can be worn together if styled right. I like to play with this concept daily, daring to do something bolder than I did the day before.

I enjoy bringing my personal style into my professional attire because it helps make my job seem less like “work.” Many believe the general attire of a professor should consist of suits, long, shapeless skirts, and clunky shoes in drab colors. Instead, I chose looks that challenge conventional ideas about “professional” attire. I wear retro shift dresses with funky prints, cardigans or billowy tops cinched with studded belts, and classic shoes like Mary Janes or loafers in bright colors or edgy prints. I frequently read Lucky magazine to get fresh ideas on how to incorporate on-trend pieces into my work wardrobe.

I believe my attire makes me more relatable to my students and gives me social capital and legitimacy when I teach courses like “Feminism(s) and Fashion.” My students—who are not that far removed from high school—tend to appreciate my trendy styles. Our interaction in the classroom helps to boost my productivity and my level of intellectual engagement with my research and my colleagues.

I think it’s important that we as professional women find ways to express ourselves and our personal convictions, even in the workplace. It not only helps our own personal morale and productivity, it can also help to reshape the dynamics of our workplaces.

I’m still unsure about what I will wear on the first day of school, but I know it will be something that reflects my love of fashion and my rebellious spirit. I’ll probably wake up the day of and decide to forgo all of my preplanned outfits, choosing instead to put something together spontaneously. But no matter what I choose, I know it will be something fierce!

You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics

Originally Published at The Feminist Wire 


In recent years, appropriate attire for professors has been a hotly debated topic. Scholars from various disciplines have offeredinstructionfashion tips and personal narratives about the importance of dress. In response to my article, Haute Couture In The Ivory Tower, professors of color posted on my Facebook and twitter pages, recounting their own fun and sometimes troubling stories related to dress in the academy.

The lively conversations in the social mediasphere motivated me to put on my “Oprah” hat (a stylish Chanel one of course!). I interviewed several female and male hip hop generation professors who make it werk (Tim Gunn voice) everyday on campuses across the country. Yet, their stylish choices and intellectual talents do not immunize them from scrutiny and questions. In fact, my interviews reveal a heightened level of criticism, shock, and awe particularly directed at women of color faculty.

Below are excerpts from some of the interviews I conducted with women professors of color. Together, these interviews illustrate that studies on fashion and adornment politics offer a powerful lens through which we can explore other important issues such as women’s rights, motherhood and relationship status, pleasure and sexuality, and the politics of “respectability.”

I asked them the following questions:

  1. How do you incorporate your personal fashion sense into your professional attire?
  2. Do you think women and/or men of color in the academy face unique challenges that are (directly or indirectly) linked to a politics of dress and adornment?


Dr. Siobhan Carter-David is an Assistant Professor of History at Southern Connecticut State University and the curator of “Strong Shoulder: Revisiting the Women’s Power Suit.”

I incorporate my personal style into my professional attire by mixing the moderate (sometimes, even conservative) with the extreme. Exposed tattoos are coupled with silk dresses, ornate vintage belts and handbags, and “serious” statement jewelry. I do have to make some small changes to accommodate my pregnancy. I choose shift dresses, pretty tunics with tights, and cute fitting blazers (left open) to go along with my pregnant look. I do think that women and men of color face unique challenges that are linked to our politics of adornment. Being an expectant mom does add another dimension to these politics. While I am not socially conservative, I must admit that I find comfort and security in prominently displaying my wedding ring(s) while pregnant. It is a defense mechanism against the prejudices of students, faculty and staff on campus. I was prejudged during my first pregnancy five years ago. I am African American, appear several years younger than my actual age (so I’ve been told), with a style aesthetic that I refuse to give up. In my students’ eyes, I looked like a “ghetto teenager” since I don’t wear pumps and pearls. Despite my accomplishments and credentials, I am still proud to be that girl from the Bronx. But my students’ could not imagine me as also being a wife, mother, and intellectual. That girl, they imagine, doesn’t know shit about the social and cultural implications of [U.S.] Reconstruction.



Dr. Tiffany Gill is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of the award-winning book Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry.

I focus on wearing pieces that make me feel confident, feminine and powerful. I focus on bold colors and prints, trendy accessories, classic staple pieces, and my signature face: dramatic eye makeup and sparkly lip gloss. When I stand in front of a lecture hall full of sleepy undergraduates, sit around a conference table during a long faculty meeting, or give a public lecture on my research, my style allows me to bring the various aspects of my life together in a way that is unapologetically meWhile I’ve always been confident in my personal style as a professor, even as it departs heavily from that of most of my white colleagues, I have never underestimated the peculiar challenges I have as a young (I got my first tenure track job at 29) black woman in the academy. I’ve had many instances, especially early in my career, when students have entered my classroom looking for the professor and were astonished when they realized that it was me…As such, I have always known that I have had to fight to earn the respect that some of my colleagues automatically receive by virtue of embodying what a “real’ professor looks like…Today I see scholars of color in my generation flexing our intellectual as well as aesthetic prowess in unprecedented ways.  We have reclaimed the pleasure of style and have merged it with the rigors of intellectual pursuit. The academy must be willing to embrace a multiplicity of style choices as well as intellectual perspectives.




Dr. Asia Leeds is an Assistant Professor of African Diaspora & World Studies at Spelman College.

One of my friends describes my style as “urban-earthy.” I’ll mix an African print dress with a black blazer, for example. On days that I wear a more understated or monochromatic outfit, I’ll incorporate a pop of color with shoes. Fun, colorful belts are also a way that I bring a plain black or navy blue dress to life. Needless to say, I need color in my life!  It gives me energy. I don’t like to look like everyone else; my personal style is an important extension and reflection of my identity.  I am young, a global citizen, and “Afropolitan,” if you will. During one postdoctoral experience, however, I wore a head wrap to campus and had a meeting with colleagues that day. I wasn’t trying to make a statement, but inevitably I did.  My colleagues (none were black) were so intrigued–a little too intrigued for my taste–and I felt like they were exoticizing me, as I felt they had with my previous hairstyle and jewelry choices.  They always reacted in seemingly positive and excited (and anthropological!) ways, but I don’t feel comfortable having SO MUCH attention on what I am wearing, especially when we should be discussing research and ideas! The best thing about academia is that you can define “professional” for yourself.  Now that I’m teaching at an HBCU and a women’s college, I do feel like I have to present myself as a role model, in terms of fashion, feminism, and as a ‘natural hair ambassador.’  I want students to take note of how Afros, African prints, etc. can look professional.



Dr. Treva Lindsey is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri who lectures on hip hop soul and black women’s sexual politics.

I proudly identify as a “single black female addicted to retail!” (Thanks Ye!)…One of my many nicknames, Dr. Diva, conveys a sense of the connection I make between my personal fashion sense and my professional attire. As a self-proclaimed diva, I embrace audacity, timelessness, sultriness, and an unwavering commitment to feminine artifice…I strive to feel fully present in my professional attire. More likely than not, I will have on some fly heels or boots and a perfectly tailored pair of slacks or a form-fitting knee length dress…On that rare occasion, when I question if a dress or skirt is appropriate, I tend to go for it. I write about African American women defying conventions and rejecting politics of respectability—so why not explore the terrain of defiance and boldness in my personal-professional style? In addition to the many challenges people of color in the academy face, we must combat particular challenges regarding attire and adornment that often inscribe our experiences. From politics of respectability to controlling images such as the Jezebel, professors of color navigate a volatile terrain of self-presentation. Many of the issues we combat entail multiple fronts. I feel pressure to “dress” professionally, while many of my white male counterparts do not feel a similar pressure. BUT, if I look “too fashionable,” questions arise about my commitment to being a scholar…Ultimately, I know it matters “what we wear,” and yet, the complexity of politics surrounding how we adorn ourselves continues to perplex me.


Dr. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University-Bloomington and the author of the award-winning book Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston.

My favorite color is red (it’s my “power color”) so I try to incorporate it (and other, bold hues) into my professional attire in order to give my teaching outfits a little “pop.” …Many of my outfits are actually very low-key. I veer toward the classic over the trendy any day, likely a holdover from my days in investment banking. But, [my outfits] appear “pulled together” or punched up because I’ve paired a basic skirt or classic dress with a great pair of patchwork suede boots, for example. I’ve noticed that many of my older, white colleagues (male and female) have a somewhat peculiar reaction to my attire, and to the attire of women of color in general. Their comments have often implied that those who “look good” must not be terribly bright, or that they are maybe not as serious about history, or not as intellectual as they are, because they are too focused on clothing and other “frivolous” matters… On the flip side, however, if I showed up in the classroom dressed the way many of my older white colleagues do (particularly the male ones) I would have an impossible time being treated with respect by my students. Many of them are already inclined to be disrespectful towards me because I look young, am female, short in stature, and a person of color. How I dress thus does matter, and there is clearly a politics of dress. At the end of the day, I dress for myself, but I am always cognizant that others are watching.



Dr. Ebony Utley is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University Long Beach and the author of the critically acclaimed Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God.

My personal style manifests in my professional attire via period dresses and heels. Every day of lecture throughout the semester I wear a different dress so students are shocked when I show up to the final in jeans. Because students dress increasingly casually, I don’t feel pressure to suit it up. That would create too much of a division between me and them. Also, because I teach popular culture classes or courses with huge popular culture components, I need to look like I know what’s trendy or I lose my credibility. I often “shop my students.” By that I mean, take stock in what’s trendy for them and try to incorporate some of the accessories or styles into my own look so that I can continue to connect with a younger and younger crowd. I’ve never seen my wardrobe as a justification for who I am or a justification for my presence in a certain space. My sartorial choices have always been reflective of my personal style not others’ expectations of me. And truthfully, those expectations have always been relatively low—because I look younger than my age (which is younger than most), and because of my race and gender. No one expects me to open my mouth and sound smart. I use that to my advantage, especially when surrounded by strangers… If anything, I think there are more young professors who aren’t afraid to [express their personal style] because the penalty for surviving this academic game and losing yourself is just too high.



These interviews elucidated the reality that women of color in particular face complex adornment politics. A Chronicle of Higher Educationarticle, Professors: Hot At Their Own Risk, demonstrates the challenges of being an attractive and stylish black, female academic. Commenters—self-identified as professors—targeted Professor Ebony Utley who unapologetically stated that she cares about her appearance and strives to looks nice. They posted insensitive remarks such as, “If this is what she wears when she lectures then I’m not surprised she is approached by students,” when responding to Utley’s story about a student who told her she could “make more money as a high class hooker.” Another scolded, “We’re not there to be ‘hot.’ We’re there to teach.” Utley and other women of color aren’t hearing any of this.  Instead, they are continuing to use their personal style to define “appropriate” and “professional” on their own terms.