#30ShirtsIn30Days: How Clothes Can Send a Message


I recently decided to wear 30 of my favorite shirts over the course of 30 days. Being a fan of pop culture, many of my shirts represented some of my favorite comics, movies, or television shows. I also have been supporting a variety of politicians across the country and wore some of those as well. Some shirts focused on sports, such as my Rams #96 shirt. Well, that one is bigger than sports, since it is also a Michael Sam shirt. In case you don't know his significance . . . I also wanted to honor a former student and friend, Laurence Smith, who tragically passed away earlier this year, far too early in life. I was privileged to know him since childhood as the little brother of one of my best school friends, as a student in one of my 7th grade homerooms, and as a fellow educator. I miss him.

This experiment was also a reminder of the impact your apparel can have. I was reminded of an incident that occurred at one of my old jobs a little over a decade ago. I purchased a shirt at the MTA (Subway) Store that had a picture of an old NYC MTA token. As a born and bred New Yorker, that shirt symbolized my devotion and connection to my home. I was really excited to wear this shirt. In addition, I bought a 3 train shirt that said Harlem to Brooklyn underneath the train number. This also represented the two NYC boroughs in which I lived. One day, I wore the token shirt to work underneath my sweater. We often had full faculty meetings in a space that literally became a sauna when we all arrived. Midway through the meeting, I took off my sweater, which revealed my shirt. I didn't think anything of it and put my sweater back on when I left. I did notice a few looks, but I thought they had to do with what I thought was the her general greatness of the shirt. The next day, there were numerous complaints from white colleagues about my shirt shared with me by my supervisor, (On a side note, the supervisor is a person of color who who did not know what the term "token" referred to.) I had offended people with my shirt. To this day, I really wish that I had purchased that shirt and wore it to be intentionally provocative, since I was reprimanded anyway. At the time, however, I was confused. My argument was a simple one. I didn't think the MTA Store made these shirts so that people like me would wear them as a political statement. Any white employee would get a pass if he or she wore the shirt. If I really wanted to make a statement, I would have been much more bold. In addition, I think the school would have benefited from people being as outraged over the incredibly small amount of people of color that worked at the school, instead of being upset about the guilt they felt when reminded about that fact. Yes, indeed, I was actually a "token" based on the Urban Dictionary definition. So, I learned my lesson, which was to pay closer attention to what I wore. I certainly did not want to anger or disappoint any colleagues. Years later, I enjoy the luxury and privilege of being able to make statements with my shirts, whether it is through my "Black is Beautiful" shirt or the aforementioned Michael Sam shirt symbolizing that I am an ally to the LGBTQ community or my shirt that reminds people that "retarded" should be retired from our lexicons. 

There was an incident at an independent boarding school that came to light during this 30 Day experiment. I pay extra close attention to incidents at independent schools, especially boarding schools, since I attended and graduated from one. Maya Peterson, a young woman of color who was the student body president at Lawrenceville School, stepped down from this prestigious position due to her decision to wear an outfit that poked fun at the typical Lawrenceville boy. She then posted this picture on her Instagram page. She admitted, and rightfully so, that this wasn't the best decision given her leadership position. But, she argues that, “You have people dressing up as Indian chiefs and geishas, and taking pictures and it’s funny, but then when it’s happening the other way around to the majority of the population, all of a sudden it’s a problem and it’s brought to the forefront and there’s issues.” I agree that this is a problem. I also feel that her voice is an important voice in this conversation. And although it might have started in a less than an ideal way and cost her the student body presidency, this conversation has started and continues on a national level. It is a reminder, once again, of the impact our choice of clothing can have on the people around us.

For more information about this incident, and an interview of Peterson by Melissa Harris-Perry, click here




Posted on August 5, 2014 .