I’m really glad that Tim Duncan called the NBA’s new dress code “retarded” and that a white player has come out and said that it’s racist. It shows both how misguided the dress code was to begin with, and also how in a postmodern world uniformity no longer works.
Seabrook writes about it in NoBrow. In a chapter titled “My Father’s Closet” he writes about how dress (like everything else) is no longer hierarchical. His father was an elegant dresser, with hundreds of well tailored, tasteful suits, who would never wear even a polo player on his chest, and was mortified when he saw his son wearing labels on his clothes. He couldn’t grasp that in this postmodern world “taste” and “class” no longer exist, and that a hip hop jersey or a Von Dutch t-shirt could actually be signs of status—which had once been the sole sartorial province of Brooks Brothers. The structures that once maintained the social hierarchy have broken down and been replaced with a tribal leveling. A Sevile Row suit might give you prestige in the country club set, but in the hip hop crowd it has far less cachet. The pyramid of culture in all things, including dress, has bee flattened in favor of taste groups, in which you signify your identity by showing that you belong, primarily through your dress and the music you listen to. So when David Stern says “you can’t wear throwback jerseys and chains and doo-rags,” what he’s actually saying is “you can’t be who you are.” And if who you are just happens to be black, that is racist.
From a post-colonialist perspective this is a no-brainer. The culture of powerful white men has often felt threatened by symbols of black masculinity. Whether it’s Huey Newton in a black turtle-neck and beret or Alan Iverson in a throwback jersey and a doo-rag, clothes that express a defiant black identity and black masculinity are shunned by the white guys in suits. This dress code is racist. It is only one step removed from not permitting black athletes to compete in baseball. Before Jackie Robinson it was “we can’t have black athletes competing with white athletes,” because black masculinity was a threat, and if a black athlete actually beat a white athlete it would call white superiority into question. Now it’s “black athletes can compete with white athletes, they just can’t be black. They cannot wear the symbols of black culture or express their black identity.” Those—mostly older—black pundits and commentators in the Bill Cosby crowd who have come out in support of the NBA dress code, have no cachet with the hip hop crowd and therefore little to add. People who have been co-opted, who have assumed the symbols of white power by adopting a country-club sartorial style—really have nothing to say to people who dress in a hip-hop style. They have been assimilated. They have abandoned their blackness in a way, and have no business telling others how to be black. Or so the post-colonialists would say. So of course the dress code is racist. It specifically targets symbols of black culture. It forces black men to conform to David Stern’s country-club, WASPish sense of style. Anytime you say to a black man “you don’t get to be black” you are being racist. That it is happening on the same week that Rosa Parks is lying in state in the capital rotunda is simply ironic.
By the way, I’m not saying Stern intended to be racist with this dress code. I learned a long time ago (the hard way) that an act can be sexist or homophobic or racist even if you didn’t intend it to be so. In a very real way racism is in the eye of the beholder. When studying the reaction of white culture to black culture throughout the twentieth century you can’t help but be struck by how often white people just didn’t get it—how often they did things thinking it was no big deal that were horribly racist and offensive to black people. The feminist movement has long said “if you’re a straight white man in America of course you think the system is fair, because it works and is fair for *you*.” Racism sometimes works the same way. In our fragmented society, where there is no one hierarchical “truth,” one person’s fairness is another person’s racism. Racism is paradigmatic. It is the nature of contemporary American democracy that we have to work out between us, either through compromise or through laws, whose paradigm is going to prevail. Usually it is the David Sterns of the world because they control the purse strings. But one of the foundations of postmodernism is that those who were formally silenced now have voice enough to say “to hell with you: my culture is as valid as yours, and I refuse to conform to your cultural ideals.” Hip-hop is the culture of black urban youth and it refuses to be silenced. Any attempt to silence it is an attempt to push black people—in this case black men—back into a second class, subservient role. Whether you intended that to be racist or not, it is.
Or perhaps I should say that is the nature of contemporary American marketing. It is, after all, all about identity and style in a post-modern world. The suit has long been a symbol of power for western culture and many people of other cultures have adopted it in an effort to gain power and prestige themselves. But contemporary culture is marketing and marketing today is all about niche, identity, sub-culture, tribe. A person wearing a throwback jersey is part of one tribe. A person wearing a biker jacket and engineers boots is another. A person wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat is a third. A person wearing a well tailored suit or a polo shirt and slacks is a fourth. They are separate cultures because corporations have discovered that there is more money to be made in niche marketing then in mass marketing. Identity is created by branding. Strip somebody of their branding and you strip them of their culture, of their tribe, of their identity. The Marines understand this. This is why they strip everyone of their identity and replace it with a uniquely military uniformity. It could be argued that this is racist too (the uniform is also a symbol of Western power, and a very potent one), but the identity that is being created through uniformity is one based less on race or ethnicity then on military culture. It is a far cry from saying what Sterns was saying, which was basically “no hip-hop.” And, I say again, hip-hop being the most potent expression of African American identity and culture, to target hip-hop is nothing if not racist.
And stupid. The NBA’s popularity is sagging. Their most potent market has long been urban youth, and it is urban youth they are in danger of alienating with this new dress code. From a marketing standpoint it seems like a disaster. I guess Stern wants to raise Basketball’s appeal in the suburbs, where NASCAR and football rule, but he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater in doing so.
All this is kind of strange, since I tend to support dress codes, and I'm not too sure that wearing a suit is a bad thing. I guess I'm conflicted.
OIn the end this dress code thing is just another example of how in George Bush’s America conservative, mostly white, mostly men are trying to suppress non-conformist expressions of identity, whether militant black or gay or feminist or hippie (all cultures that the conservative, mostly white, mostly male marketing machine nurtures and fosters as identifiable markets). Back in the day I used to have a motto: the freedom to conform has a name, and that name is oppression.