09/07/2011 01:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2011

Low-Hanging Pants and Other Phenomena

I've got to be honest. I am not a huge fan of "sagging" -- the youth craze of wearing your jeans or pants below your undergarments. It isn't just the unsightliness of seeing young people struggle to walk with their pants falling down that gets my goat. I can't stand sagging because it flies in the face of everything I've ever been taught about the outward signs of self-respect and self- confidence: stand up straight, speak clearly, tuck your shirt in, walk with your head held high, etc. These were all lessons that served my generation of young people well -- they represent a small sampling of the roadmap our elders offered us to get from here to there. On my roadmap, "here" represented the carefree riskiness and foolishness of youth, and "there" signified open doors and infinite possibilities of adulthood.

Of course, that's big talk coming from someone who grew up in the '80s -- a time of Michael Jackson-inspired red leather jackets, Miami Vice-inspired blazers, Madonna rubber bracelets, and Flashdance-inspired shredded sweats. My mother had bouffant hair and poodle skirts, my dad rocked dashikis and handlebar sideburns. And, I'm sure that my grandmother wore something that got on my great-grandmother's nerves. The fact is that each generation has its own interpretive dance, so to speak, on what it means to be young and vibrant and free. In our democratic society, where norms are constantly shifting and changing, it seemed an inevitable rite of passage.

What stuns me about the "sagging" craze is that I cannot remember a time when youth culture has elicited such unbridled anger from older generations. There have been city ordinances passed against it, and policing of pants in some communities. As the recession drags on I think to myself, "We've got time and money to monitor pants?!" I could speculate that the mainstreaming of an urban youth cultural expression emanating from Black and Latino boys, not only signifies a blurring of the lines between young people of every background in the 21st century, it may just make some folks uncomfortable. What will our country look like when this renegade generation, who are fighting to summarily use the power of music, dance, and pop culture to chuck our racial shackles and create a new America -- one that may one day soon have a woman, gay, or Latino president -- finally get their way? Am I naively optimistic, or am I onto something wonderful?

I hate to think that I'm an unenlightened, fuddy-duddy in my own frustration with this particular style. But, my objections may be more nuanced than most. Remember that roadmap I talked about? The rules of the roadmap dictate that there is something wonderful and rewarding on the other side of sagging. It promises a moment when, if you will submit to dominant cultural norms and mores, you give up the "Stepford" uniformity of adolescence and your sagging pants, you will cross over into the brotherhood of democracy and equal opportunity. If it sounds familiar, it may be because the notion can actually be found in 1 Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." Unlike so many other anti-sagging activists (Gee, is there really a movement brewing over youth culture?), I am more concerned with whether or not the future we are helping to shape for Black and Latino boys who sag is compelling enough to inspire them to put away childish things. Black and Latino boys and young men find themselves negotiating social situations where there is unprovoked suspicion, disapproval and low expectations. The rejection at the door is noticeable, palpable and exemplified in the high drop out rates, high unemployment rates, high rates of incarceration and low expectations illustrated through record referrals for special education among these populations; but, we want to know why these young people aren't buying in?

Asset-based youth development workers know, more than most people, that you cannot legislate, bully, insult or degrade a young person into buying into the "mainstream." Sometimes you have to listen more than you speak. Sometimes you have to be a student while your teaching. Sometimes you have to watch them fail and come back to you when they're ready. And, every time, you've got to serve as the living embodiment of what it is you want young people to create for themselves. Are you selfless? Do you play nice and work well with others? Are you respectful to all whom you encounter?

When students at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund tell me they hope they have the opportunity to work at a place like HEAF where people are passionately working together with common purpose, I know that they've gotten the hidden messages we offer through how we work. Don't get me wrong; we don't allow our young people to wear their pants too low or their skirts to high. But, it's not because we hate youth culture -- and we're not shy about communicating that to them. We just believe that there is a time and place for everything. Sinbad, the comedian, reminisces about the difference between "school clothes" and "play clothes" when he was growing up. When he came home from school, he changed his clothes to signify that something different was happening.

Code switching (which generally refers to variations in linguistic patterns, but is used here to connote differences in behavior and dress as well) gives young people the room they need to see the value in who they are and where they come from, while giving them permission to step out of their comfort zones to explore new ways to communicate who they are and what they want from life. We have the power to inspire change, but they won't listen for long if the message is clouded in our disapproval. If we are authentic in our approach, I promise, they will pull their pants up.