Memo to School Administrators: Afros and Dreads Aren't "Faddish" Hairstyles

4 years ago

UPDATE: The Deborah Brown Community School administrators held a meeting Monday night, September 9, and voted to change the wording of their policy that led to one 7-year-old girl's being sent home for wearing her hair in dreadlocks—though that will not convince the girl's family to keep her in that school. Tiana Parker has already enrolled and been accepted elsewhere. The school board changed the policy's wording to focus more on "hygiene" and whether a student's appearance was at all disruptive to the educational environment.

Another school in America is setting new records for ignorance, ignorance that they've hardwired into their policies. A seven-year-old girl was sent home from her school in Tulsa, the Deborah Brown Community School, because she was wearing the wrong hairstyle: dreadlocks.

What. WHAT?! No, that can't be right. Clearly no school would make that call. Let's review the policy with which they defended their decision; surely that will make this all make sense:

"Hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable."

Nope, that makes no sense. And it's in fact offensive, insulting and so wrong on so many levels, I don't know where to start. How about this: Afros and dreadlocks? Not fads. They are two hairstyles that are (1) profoundly historical in nature (i.e., opposite of fad) and (2) largely connected to one type of hair, Afro-textured hair. It's like saying your students can't wear long, blonde ponytails. Or rock the wild and crazy tightly wound curls that are typical of large numbers of people from the ethnoreligious group known as Jews.

Sure, the mohawk is tossed in there, that long-ago-tamed haircut that used to represent defiance in England when the punk scene broke, oh, 40 years ago (and before that, the haircut was on Pawnee Indians, and before that Scythian warriors...). But it's not the fad they're fighting with these rules; it's the defiance. And that is exactly the hardcore you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me serious problem with this rule. Not to mention the fact that they crushed the spirit of this sweet little girl, who was rocking a gorgeous pink bow among her dreads when a Tulsa TV station interviewed her about the incident. Do NOT watch this video if you tend toward tears; it will kill you. Or make you a warrior. On second thought, watch this video!

Are you pissed yet? Good.

Okay, I'll calm down for a second. Sure, any private school (Deborah Brown Community School is a charter school) is allowed to make rules as it sees fit. But I really do have to keep quarreling this case, because let's look at the school's mission, and its homepage.

Mission first:

"The school strives to meet the social, intellectual, psychological and physical needs of each child, thus teaching the TOTAL child."

So much for "total child." What that school just taught that girl—and all the classmates she left behind—was that part of her is wrong, that something that comes naturally to her, HER HAIR, is wrong, that having African-American hair is wrong.

On the school's homepage, you see this photo below, sending a pretty strong message that this school is for African-American families and African-American children, and that white people are the ones who are going to lift them up. Which makes it doubly wrong that their policy on appearance would single out utterly ordinary African-American hairstyles. Because it sends a message that there is a way to be too Black. Or at least sends the message that there one Right Way to be Black. The fact that the school has a stacked deck of Administrators and board members who are African-American doesn't buy them a pass, either. Do they really think a certain hairstyle equals bad behavior?

The Deborah Brown Community School homepage

Can you imagine school telling a white girl her hair was too blonde? That her chunky golden highlights are too faddish, and thus distracting to her classmates? No, because that never happens.

I am only too painfully aware of the Great Divide that exists in America's education — the Divide that means that white kids get good educations and minority children, and most especially African-American children, don't — so I don't happily call this school out for this egregious stumble. I believe that they believe their mission. I believe that they are working hard to do good, teach well, and change the arc of many of their students' lives. (Also in their mission: "We have a diverse student body comprised mostly of students indigenous to the economic and social deprive parts of Tulsa." I'm tempted to dissect this sentence, its ineloquent word choice and grammatical slip-ups, but I don't want to be uncharitable, and the rest of the site is very well edited.)

But call out the school, I must. Because to narrow the Great Divide and truly change the trajectory of the lives of populations that have not generally been well served by our society, we all have to accept all of our children as being whole in their natural existence, and worthy of all the self-expression they can conjure. Which means, among many other things, let them wear their hair in the way it naturally grows out of their pretty little heads.

Afros may have represented revolutions in America's past, being proudly worn in the '60s and '70s by such cultural icons as The Black Panthers and the ultra-fierce Angela Davis during the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, a famously tense and fraught time in our country's history. But what the Afro also stood for, along with revolution, was the rejection of assimilation, the rejection of the need to look like everyone else (i.e. white people), the rejection of the idea that Blacks had to set aside parts of their Blackness in order to fit into the White culture of America. Asking that little girl not to have dreads was asking her to deny something that is at her very core: hair follicles and history. And she needs to build her life owning both.

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