A new lawmaker from Memphis, Tennessee, is making waves after he attended his swearing-in ceremony wearing a dashiki.
Democratic Rep. Justin J. Pearson was sworn in on Feb. 9 in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Pearson was elected in a special election to fill the vacancy left by the late Barbara Cooper in House District 86. He told Action News 5 that wearing the traditional West African dress was intentional.
“Wearing this dashiki on the first day and being sworn in wearing it is paying homage to the ancestors who made this opportunity possible,” said Pearson.
Pearson wore a black dashiki with a glorious afro on the House floor, and during opening remarks, Rep. David Hawk (R-Greenville) implied that Pearson wasn’t dressed professionally and told a story about how the late Rep. Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis), the first Black woman to become Speaker Pro Tempore, reprimanded Hawk for not wearing a tie and coat inside the House Assembly.
“We honor Lois Deberry’s memory by how we look and how we treat each other and how we give the respect we hope to get back,” said Hawk. “I still, to this day, keep an extra tie in my drawer.”
Pearson shared a picture of himself wearing the dashiki on Twitter with a caption thanking the ancestors. He also mentioned Hawk’s remarks and called him a “white supremacist.”
“We literally just got on the State House floor and already a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my Dashiki,” wrote Pearson. “Resistance and subversion to the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable. Thank you to every Black Ancestor who made this opportunity possible!”
Pearson’s Twitter post prompted a response from the Tennessee House GOP Twitter account. The account claimed that there were “approved rules” for House attire while also saying they were not racist for saying so.
“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.”
The insults continued on Twitter, with Fox News alum Todd Starnes calling Pearson’s dashiki “a blouse.” Others supported Pearson and congratulated him on becoming a Tennessee state representative. “I love what you’re doing,” wrote one user. “Stay focused and push forward.”
There are no specific rules on a dress code for lawmakers on the House floor, however, office Speaker Cameron Sexton says there is a precedent of wearing a suit and tie.
“The House clerk has sent Rep. Pearson the information he requested earlier today. During her historic tenure in the General Assembly, the late Lois DeBerry established a precedent for attire that remains in place today; men must wear a coat and a tie if they wish to be recognized in committee or on the House floor,” read the statement.
It continued, “Ms. DeBerry would frequently address members violating this precedent and remind them of the requirement. The speaker will continue to follow the precedent and the path established by Ms. DeBerry to honor her and her incredible legacy within our legislative body.”
Pearson said that he is trying to change the status quo and show that there are more than European ways of expression when it comes to policies. “It’s not a problem with wearing suits, there is a problem with upholding systems that tell people what is wrong and what is right based on what is considered normal and, in this status quo, what is normal is what is white.”
“This dress is resistance. This afro is resistance. What we are doing here is subversive to the status quo, and I think that’s going to continue to make people uncomfortable,” said Pearson.
Pearson also said that he won’t be deterred from wearing African dress to work as he continues to honor his ancestry.