When Clothes Make the Man

For a couple of weeks, a pupil in my school has been wearing distinctly skinhead clothes: high-laced black boots, tight jeans that are tucked into the afore mentioned boots and a black Pitbull bomber jacket on top of a white or black tee-shirt. He has also shaved his head. In other words, he looks just about as charming as a character out of This is England or if he had just attended a National Front meeting.

He has been summoned by the administration and questioned about his clothing. Apparently he explained that he is perfectly aware of the significance of his clothes but that the economic crisis has made him realise that ‘the white race is threatened’. He has agreed to remove the white laces on his boots but has kept the other items of his unsavoury garb. It would seem that since he has ‘promised’ he does not believe in violence (but would anyone be dumb enough not to), he can dress as he chooses.

In French schools, the law concerning religious and political beliefs is that ‘ostentatious signs’ are prohibited – in other words you can wear a star of David but not a kippa, a hand of Fatima but not a headscarf. The same applies to political signs. Besides any kind of proselytizing – whether it is religious or political is forbidden.

As a Jew, a Democrat, a European, a woman and a teacher, I feel offended. I find it very unpleasant and disturbing to see him in such attire on the school premises, knowing that it is tolerated by our administration. Other than go and see the head, is there anything else you would do?

14 thoughts on “When Clothes Make the Man

  1. It is astonishing to me how intolerant French society is of expressions of religious belief. The fact that students can’t wear peaceful symbols of their faith such as a kippah or a Muslim headscarf is appalling. And yet, your skinhead student can wear clothes that clearly identify him as a racist.
    I’m not sure how much you can do as a teacher without risking your job. But I wish that the students themselves would organize some sort of protest in which they all agreed to wear kippot or headscarves for a day to show that either all symbols of belief should be allowed or none at all.

    • I think that the policy regarding religious symbols needs to be understood within its historical context. Before the French revolution, the influence of the Catholic Church over the whole country was strong and they controlled the schools. So the laws were originally established to counteract this influence and it enabled the Protestants and the Jews to find a place in French society more easily and to be considered as French citizens.
      Nowadays this idea is still strong. Most colleagues would agree that it is pleasant not to know whether a pupil thinks religion is important or not.
      What annoys me in this case is the feeling that this boy’s clothes are seen as self-expression whereas a kippah or headscarf (unfortunately Christians do not have such visible signs) is seen as a symbol of religious brainwashing.

  2. I suppose the scary part isn’t so much his clothes but his strident, harsh beliefs. I have to think there is a scared young man under those clothes. Unfortunately, you probably won’t reach that part of him.

    • I was talking to a colleague (who also found all this very shocking) and she informed me that when we went to the Shoah Memorial two years ago this boy (not a pupil of mine at that time either) was part of the group. This got me really depressed.
      Yet my colleague said she’d try to have a word with him.

  3. It’s a really difficult situation, not least because it appears that the administration doesn’t feel courageous enough to interpret the law in a more definite manner. As ever, what is freedom of expression to one person (whether you agree with their ideology or not), can be interpreted as oppression by another person. When I was a student in my early teenage years, there were boys at my school who wore skinny trousers, Doc Marten boots and shaved their heads (within the context of wearing a school uniform) but it was more of a fashion-statement, and also linked to the kind of music they liked. I never heard them express racist comments at all. And then, a couple of years later they were wearing a completely different type of clothing as their music tastes changed. This incident at your school is almost certainly more worrying, I think.

    With regards to the context of French law, we don’t have the same approach here in the UK, but large companies have been taken to the European Court of Human Rights by employees over their ‘banning’ of wearing and displaying religious symbols during their hours of work (the one that comes to mind involves wearing of a cross on a chain). Whilst the current Prime Minister has previously made comments about changing the law to protect religious expression at work, I am not sure this will be high on his agenda right now! I think, as ever, there is good and bad in whatever approach a country takes…

    • From what he explained to the administration, I’d say that this guy is aware of the message his clothing conveys and that in that respect he is far from harmless – unlike the guys you mention. Which is why I find their lack of action pathetic. I guess that it must also be uncomfortable to the pupils who come from minorities (whatever they are) to witness such blatant hatred (skinheads are no angels, are they?)
      With regard to the end of your remark, I don’t really know what private companies can and do allow or forbid here. The world has changed a lot in the past decades and I find that people still have to learn to live together; not something the current economic crisis has rendered easy.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Review with Snow | Ilana-Davita

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