While waiting in line at the store one Sunday afternoon, I overheard a White couple talking about their experience driving by a Black church. They expressed how it was “delightful” and “comical” for them to see so many well-dressed Black people spilling onto the streets of a neighborhood that wasn’t so aesthetically pleasing.
I was intrigued by their conversation so I introduced myself and offered them a few minutes of my time. It hadn’t occurred to me that some people would view the way Black people dress for church in such ironic and condescending ways. So, after my time in conversation with this couple, I began asking some of my White friends how they perceive, or what they have concluded about, the particular way Black people dress for church. I was surprisingly met with the same kind of perceptions that were held by the anonymous patrons I overheard talking at the store.
“I don’t get it,” one friend said. “I think if poor people spent money on things that matter instead of buying expensive clothes and shoes, they wouldn’t be poor.”
All Black people aren’t poor. Many of us are, however, because of systemic bias, inadequate educational opportunities, and institutional oppression, but all Black people aren’t poor. And for those who are, bargain hunting and thrift store shopping can enhance anyone’s wardrobe. Furthermore, there are many people of all races and ethnic groups who live beyond their means in a capitalist society that gains its influence by rewarding competition and materialism.
This list that I present to you does not apply to every Black person in its entirety—because all Black people don’t share the same religious beliefs. As someone who grew up in a charismatic church frequented by a predominantly Black congregation, here are some reasons why our elders encouraged us to dress up for church:
- You present your best self before God.
It was instilled within us that God is the Supreme Being and Lord of all creation; and we were taught that church is the house of God: the physical place where the presence of God is manifested. In the same way that we would wear our finest clothes to meet the Queen of England, Black churchgoers dress to encounter royalty on Sunday morning.
- It is refreshing to look nice.
Whether we like it or not, how we look influences how we feel, and in a society that has historically depicted Black people as unattractive and is still reluctant to fully celebrate a standard of beauty that is not entirely informed by Eurocentric standards and ideals, dressing up makes Black people feel good.
- It’s Safer.
Since American society has been conditioned to see Black people as threatening, if a group of Black people are seen together —and they are not dressed up— it may trigger fear and a potentially violent response from those who view Black people as dangerous.
Because of the color of his skin, a Black man in a suit might still get pulled over by the cops or ridiculed by White supremacists, but we are taught at a young age that there is a chance we might avoid being killed or jailed if our appearance is non-threatening. Events like the Charleston Massacre and the church bombing in Birmingham, however, are reminders that we can never truly escape the threat of violence no matter how we are dressed.
- Everyone else is dressed up.
Some criticize the Black church for being similar to a fashion show that judges people for what they wear, but peer pressure is influential for every group of people. Having a day set aside to feel significant and to look good encourages some to go that extra mile. For others, it is a continuation of the social burden to prioritize conformity and materialism over individuality and authenticity. As with every social group, there are always people who simply do things because it’s consistent with the actions of the majority.
There are many reasons we all do what we do, and the best way to understand a group of people is to learn about their history. Some Black churchgoers who dress up may do so for one or several of the reasons listed above. Whether we are Black people, or non-Black people who hope to one day live in a more culturally sensitive and inclusive society, the best way to influence our future is to understand our past.
For a closer, more in depth analysis of Black American culture and behavior, here is a video: “Why Black People Act The Way They Do” presented by Dr. Joy DeGruy, who is the author of, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.