Tennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson (D) has defended his decision to wear a dashiki in the state Capitol following criticism from Republican colleagues who argued that he should “explore a different career opportunity” if he didn’t like decorum rules.
Pearson faced criticism for wearing a dashiki, a loose-fitting tunic with origins in West Africa, on the House floor following his special election win last month.
Pearson, who was sworn in as a state representative while wearing a dashiki, told Tennessee’s WMC-TV that donning the garment is a way of “paying homage to the ancestors who made” his opportunity possible.
Some House Republicans, however, weren’t as warm toward Pearson’s show of respect.
Tennessee Rep. David Hawk (R), who did not name Pearson in a speech last week, brought up a story about the late Black Democrat and former speaker pro tempore, Lois DeBerry, as he reflected on officials’ attire in the House.
He remarked that DeBerry, who died in 2013, once reminded him he couldn’t walk in the door of the House without a tie.
“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. I still, to this day, keep an extra tie in my drawer,” Hawk said.
Pearson, following the speech, wrote on Twitter that he’d been attacked for his choice of a dashiki on the House floor.
“Resistance and subversion to the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable,” he said.
The Tennessee House GOP Twitter account, in response, criticized the Democrat for not liking decorum “rules” in the House.
“If you don’t like rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them,” the tweet said.
Multiple news outlets noted that there’s no written “rules” regarding decorum and, in the words of a spokesperson for Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R), men’s attire habits ― a tie and a coat ― are part of a House “precedent” established by DeBerry.
House decorum and attire are matters left up to the House speaker, WPLN-FM noted.
“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,” the spokesperson told CNN.
Pearson told WKRN-TV that the use of DeBerry’s legacy by Republicans was “wrong and immoral.”
“If they actually care about Lois DeBerry’s legacy, let’s see them put forward legislation for justice,” he said.
Pearson reportedly doesn’t plan to back down and called out Republicans over the chatter about his dashiki.
“Whether that be folks who want to wear drag or people who have different abilities or people who want to read certain books, taking power over people’s agency is a theme of this body,” Pearson said.