Students and schools fight for cultural rights during graduation


Staff Graphic by Kaylee Jacobs

Graduations are a monumental time where students honor their academic, personal and overall success in and out of school

High school graduation is a monumental step for students and their families. However, this day can bring mixed feelings when students cannot participate in traditions that they have been looking forward to for years, including adorning their graduation attire. 

Schools often cite uniformity as an excuse to restrict students’ attire. However, one counterpoint to the argument is these ceremonies are more formal when uniforms can be seen at graduation. The majority of public universities are rather lenient when it comes to the wardrobe of their graduates. Why stress the importance of uniformity when paying students in higher learning institutions can decorate, accessorize, and adorn their dress as they please?

When students are given the opportunity to wear their cultural attire at graduations, they are honoring their own success and raising cultural awareness. This is especially important for those who belong to historically underrepresented groups, such as Native Americans, who make up only .9 percent of all US students in public school. 

Some cultures and families have specific traditions just for graduations, and restricting students from participating can cause feelings of invalidation and distress. It is degrading for students to have to ask permission to honor their identities and incredibly damaging if and when they are denied that right.

When students are given the opportunity to wear their cultural attire at graduations, they are honoring their own success and raising cultural awareness

In 2017, one Indigenous student in Arizona was given permission to wear her regalia while some of her peers were left to sneak in their items, potentially risking their ability to participate in their ceremonies. 

We should not have to rely on situational approval for wearing cultural attire from administrators who may not necessarily understand the significance of pieces, such as beaded caps, cultural jewelry, feathers, Kente cloths, etc. When cultural wear is only approved on a case-by-case basis, there are endless possibilities for prejudice and bias to occur. 

A statement released in June 2020 by Keith Sutton, Chair of the Wake Board of Education, and Cathy Q Moore, Wake County Public School System Superintendent, acknowledges the idea that schools are responsible for teaching cultural awareness and equity along with academics.

Educational institutions cannot claim to value diversity and prioritize cultural awareness without providing protections for students to participate and share their cultures in monumental steps in their lives.