When I worked for the Wegman grocery chain in the Northeast, my store had a dinner celebrating the ethnic diversity of our employees. And there was a lot of diversity. We literally had employees whose families were from all over the globe. It was a great event. Yet one of my friends and co-workers did not want to attend.
(Why would anyone pass up on an opportunity for free food?)
They did not want to support the dinner because they felt everyone should be assimilating. This person thought, “Why would we want to celebrate ethnic diversity? It’s assimilation; we should all be emphasizing the fact that we are American.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to live in America and be an American citizen. But let’s face it: unless we are Native American, none of our families are from here originally. We all have cultural and ethnic heritages that extend back to some other continent. Additionally, one of the beauties of our country is that people from all other countries can come here, live, work, and be in community with people who are already here.
I hope people never assimilate. I hope they hold on to their ethnic heritage, their gifts, their talents, their identity.
One of the earliest controversies in the church was what to do about the Gentiles. The first Christians were all Jewish by birth and having to include the Gentiles created some discomfort. One of the biggest issues (speaking of discomfort) was the matter of circumcision. Jews had to be circumcised; Gentiles did not. Jewish Christians wanted Gentile Christians to share in the experience.
There was one problem with that, however. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. It was a sign that was supposed to be carried on for all generations of Abraham’s descendants.
It was never part of a covenant with Gentiles.
And it was never part of the covenant for Christians.
So the Apostle Paul argued that Gentiles should not be circumcised. He even lived this example by refusing to have Titus, a Gentile, circumcised even though he did have Timothy, a Jew, circumcised.
Circumcision was a sign of Jewish-ness. It was not a sign of Gentile-ness or Christian-ness. So why would we want to force something on a group of people that was not necessary? Why would we want to try and change their identity?
One of the local schools wants to institute a uniform policy. They call it “standardized dress.” I think standardized dress has as many pitfalls as standardized testing.
There are many reasons for moving to a standardized dress policy. Some suggest that discipline issues and absenteeism will decrease. Additionally, many believe it levels the economic playing field for the students. If rich kids aren’t allowed to wear designer clothing and poor kids don’t come to school in tattered clothing, then all the bullying about what kids are wearing will go away.
However, research does not resoundingly support these claims. There have been studies that reveal a slight improvement in measurables: attendance, issues of discipline, and grades. However, those schools where improvement was seen incorporated entire programs of which uniforms were only one part. It is impossible to state that it is the uniforms that made the difference.
In unmeasurables, those things that are perception-based such as bullying and classroom distraction, the adults report improvement while the children report no change (and there have been very few studies that actually talk to the students about all of this.)
So the research is not very strong for either side of the uniform issue. However, my biggest concern regarding standardized dress is that it is a very middle class mindset to think that everyone buying the same thing will eliminate problems.
For a uniform policy to be initiated, there is likely to be a cost up front; especially for families with multiple students at the school. The uniforms need to be purchased; multiple uniforms need to be purchased. Families with money will buy enough uniforms to last for an entire week while families without will buy one. Families with money usually have washing machines and dryers in their homes and have the luxury of deciding to do small loads of wash during the week. Families living in low-rent housing (or the more than 700 homeless students that live in our city) often only get to do laundry once a week or once every other week. So the families that can only afford one or two uniforms will be sending their children to school in dirty uniform clothes while waiting for laundry day to come about.
Beyond that, we should be appreciating each person for who they are and teaching them how to appropriately express their individuality. We should not be trying to make everyone look the same (especially when that “same” we are shooting for is middle class and white).
Why do we desire everyone to look alike? Whether the issue is circumcision, assimilation, or school uniforms those who are privileged often assume a posture of wanting everyone to look, sound, and think alike. But it doesn’t work.
Uniformity does not breed unity. Uniformity breeds mindlessness.
And while it sounds like a good idea that everyone just forget all their differences and focus on their similarities, in practice it calls people to give up those things that make them individuals. Jewish Christians wanted to make Gentiles just like them instead of like Jesus. Those who call for people of different ethnicities to assimilate are calling for them to give up their individual character. Those who call for uniforms are calling for an end to individuality and a start to, “Look like us, please.”
Let us celebrate those things that make us different. Let us celebrate those things that bring us together and allow us to share who we are with one another. Let us stop trying to look alike and start appreciating the beauty that each person brings to this life.
*For some further reading on standardized dress for school, see the following:
Brunsma, D.L. & Rockquemore, K.A. (2003). Statistics, sound bites, and school uniforms: A reply to Bodine. The Journal of Educational Research 97(2), 72-77.
Firmin, M., Smith, S., & Perry, L. (2006). School uniforms: A qualitative analysis of aims and accomplishments at two Christian schools. Journal of Research on Christian Education 15(2), 143-168.
Gentile, E. & Imberman, S.A. (2012). Dressed for success? The effect of school uniforms on student achievement. Journal of Urban Economics 71, 1-17.