When state Rep. Justin Pearson arrived at the Tennessee House to begin his term, systemic racism met him at the door.

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As an American traveling the world over the years, I noticed with curiosity that, especially in foreign cities, people generally dressed as Americans do—clad not in their traditional garb but in Western-style (global West, not Wild West) shirts and pants, blouses and skirts.

They did this despite their own indigenous fashions being, in my view, far more vibrant, colorful, and diverse.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to remember today, as Americans debate whether “systemic racism” even exists in the United States and elsewhere. Or, in the context of this essay, what might be called systemic white exceptionalism in America.

What says who you are—or, more importantly, who you aspire to be—better than what you wear?

And many, many people worldwide aspire to superpower American imagery, especially in dress and the arts. For instance, try to find a country where no one wears “blue jeans,” even used pairs in tatters, and you will generally be disappointed.

The original patented system of riveting the stress points of durable canvas trousers’ for hard-rock miners morphed in the 19th century into the Levi Strauss Co., still an international juggernaut today, according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, “The History of Blue Jeans.” The distinctive canvas pants later morphed into a more flexible blue denim iteration and became—and remain—an iconic global American fashion statement, particularly for the young.

Nancy Davis, curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC., says that in the second half of the 20th century, after Strauss’ death in 1902, blue jeans “achieved widespread cultural significance”:

They really come to their apex in the 60s and 70s. The interesting thing is that this particular type of pants, the blue jeans, have become international. When they think of America, they think of blue jeans.

This could be described as systemic cultural exceptionalism. By wearing jeans, people identify with America—and America, believing in its exceptionalism, believes that’s good, even sometimes essential.

In fact, it’s a joint exceptionalism—of America and Europe—whose sartorial styles are somewhat interchangeable as popularizers of the so-called Western style of dress.

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An interesting negative example of this emerged recently when newly elected state Rep. Justin Pearson, a Memphis Democrat, arrived February 9, his first day at Tennessee’s House of Representatives, wearing a dashiki—a “loose-fitting pullover … associated with West African culture and a symbol of Black pride,” Nashville’s NPR radio station, WLPN, reported.

That’s when Euro-American exceptionalism and knee-jerk conservativism kicked in.

WLPN’s Blaise Gainey noted that Rep. Pearson’s arrival made Republican Rep. David Hawk “uncomfortable.” In remarks on the House floor, Hawk said that one time in the past he himself had been refused entry on the floor by then-Speaker Lois Deberry because he wasn’t wearing a tie.

However, no formal written rules govern floor attire. It’s at the discretion of the House Speaker. Gainey reported all that exists is “a longstanding practice for men to wear a suit and tie, and women to wear formal business attire.”

The Western business uniform, in other words.

That the dishiki is commonly worn in professional and formal settings in Africa doesn’t count, apparently.

A Fortune magazine article titled “A brief history of dress codes in the workplace” explains that,

The business suit as we now know it started to take shape in the 18th century, when elite men began to abandon conspicuously opulent, aristocratic clothing such as velvet, brocade, and jewelry, in favor of a streamlined, sober, and practical wardrobe. The suit came to represent the Enlightenment ideals of social equality and reason; the moral values of sobriety, thrift, and modesty; and the civic virtues of industriousness and practicality.

Ironic that a custom created for inclusion is now used for exclusion.

Today, Western business dress remains superior, and anything else is an inappropriate political or ideological statement, is the continuing message.

So much for tolerance of, much less respect for, dress diversity. Said Pearson, who also sports a 1960s-style Afro:

What’s happening here is you have discriminatory practices and policies to help homogenize this community to look like a cis white older man—which is westernized European culture, which is in and of itself its own expression. And we have to realize there are other expressions too, and to say there’s only one that needs to be seen here is really saying there’s only one type of person that needs to be here.

In a tweet after Rep. Pearson’s arrival on the House floor, the official Twitter site of the Tennessee House Republicans attacked the new legislator:

Referencing the bipartisan and unanimously approved rules for House decorum and dress attire is far from a racist attack. If you don’t like rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.

Of course there are no rules in the Tennessee House, only “norms.”

Its conservative Republicans were responding to Pearson’s earlier tweet:

We literally just got on the State House floor and already a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my Dashiki. Resistance and subversion to the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable. Thank you to every Black Ancestor who made this opportunity possible!

If necessary, Pearson says, he will wear his dashiki over a suit and tie.

The pushback against Rep. Pearson by fellow legislators is systemic racism in action, built-in discrimination against “others.”

The message is, we are better than you—and there’s no argument.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...