On March 15, the Rhode Island Senate rules committee was debating a provision that would mandate legislators maintain decorum by dressing in certain ways.
Sen. Jonathon Acosta, D-District 16, argued that legislators’ varying backgrounds were affected by an “ethno-racial-class nexus” and informed what they considered to be appropriate dress.
“The frame that you bring to decorum might be different than the one that I bring for decorum, but does not make mine any less valuable,” he said before suggesting authors whom he said could explain “why this type of rule is so oppressive.”
He added that the committee was changing the rules in a way that worsened the power dynamic in the legislature because it gave more power to a White Senate president.
The section under debate reads: “The president of the senate shall preserve decorum and order in the senate chamber. While in the senate chamber, members and staff shall be required to dress in proper and appropriate attire, such as blouses, dress slacks and collared shirts with accompanying jacket.”
Acosta argued that it was “super inappropriate” for the White, male Senate president to “bestow a normative judgment” on what people can wear in the chamber.
When a series of senators defended the rule, Acosta suggested race and class undergirded the words they used. “Folks use expressions like professional … presentable, appropriate … what they mean is white-collar, White western dress.”
He added that he wanted to make sure his colleagues acknowledge that the Senate was a “white-collar, White western space.”
“If that is what is necessary to be in this space, then that is what you are saying … the only function of this type of norm is to exclude — it is to say that which does not belong here. And in this presentation, or in this explanation of my colleagues, of what does belong here, it is all stuff that connotes white-collar, White people.”
“If I were to adopt that costume, which I have in the past,” he added. “In my first year teaching, I wore a shirt and tie every day and I came to realize that what I was doing was reaffirming to all the Black and Brown poor kids that I was teaching, that in order to be successful, you had to try to look and approximate Whiteness as much as possible — and that is the message that you would be forcing down the throat of all the residents of Rhode Island.”
The Associated Press reported Thursday that this criticism has surfaced in other areas. For example, a Maori lawmaker won his battle against wearing a tie in the New Zealand Parliament last month. He derided the tie as a “colonial noose” and wore a traditional hei tiki pendant instead.
Democratic Sen. Louis DiPalma, who chairs the Rhode Island rules committee that vetted the revised mandates, argued that the dress provision is broader than those in other state legislatures.
“It’s not about judging how anyone looks,” he said. “A dress code and decorum are about respecting an institution that is 200-plus years old.”
But Sen. Cynthia Mendes, an East Providence Democrat, countered that this year’s dress code is more specific than the chamber’s previous one, which simply required all persons on the Senate floor “be properly dressed.”
She also questioned the timing of the new edict, following an election in which more women and people of color were voted into the 38-member chamber in its history.
“This is colonization language. The need to remind everyone who is in power. It has always started with what you tell them to do with their bodies,” Mendes said. “That’s not lost on me.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.