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Black Tennessee state representative responds to backlash over wearing African dashiki to swearing-in ceremony

Rep. Justin Pearson is sworn into office on February 9. (Photo:Theresa Montgomery/State of Tennessee Photographic Services)

(CNN) — First-term Tennessee state representative Justin Pearson says he was trying to honor his ancestors for helping him rise to elected office when he wore his dashiki on the floor of the House chamber during his swearing-in ceremony Feb. 9.

The freshman lawmaker says he was surprised to hear another member, Rep. David Hawk, criticize him for his attire. Pearson says his colleague scolded him for not adhering to tradition where male lawmakers wear suits and ties on the House floor.

In his floor speech, according to the House speaker’s office, Hawk referred to the late Rep. Lois DeBerry, who as speaker pro tempore established a precedent of men wearing a coat and tie in the chamber.

CNN has reached out to Hawk for comment.

“There’s nothing in the rules about attire at all,” Pearson told CNN, adding that he typically wears his dashiki for special occasions.

After the swearing-in, Pearson took to Twitter to denounce his colleague’s criticism, saying, “…a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my Dashiki.” Pearson added he understands not conforming to the “status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable.”

In response to Pearson, the Tennessee House GOP tweeted that if Pearson doesn’t like decorum rules that were approved in a bipartisan manner, he should “explore a different career opportunity.” The tweet adds that reminding members to follow the approved decorum rules is “far from a racist attack.”

A spokesman for Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton told CNN in a statement: “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 says he will continue to wear his dashiki but will wear a coat and tie with it so he is recognized on the floor and his constituents are represented.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with a dashiki; it’s about who’s wearing it. It’s about us being here,” Pearson told CNN, adding that he wants to make Tennessee more inclusive. “It’s not a problem of dress, it’s a problem of principle that is wrong and lacks inclusivity.”

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