Schools criticized for bans on hairstyles
Students with afros, dreadlocks, mohawks scrutinized
“Why are you so sad?” a TV reporter asked the little girl with a bright pink bow in her hair.
“Because they didn’t like my dreads,” she sobbed, wiping her tears. “I think that they should let me have my dreads.”
With those words, second-grader Tiana Parker of Tulsa, Okla., found herself, at age 7, at the center of decades of debate over standards of black beauty, cultural pride and freedom of expression.
It was no isolated incident at the predominantly black Deborah Brown Community School, which in the face of outrage in late August apologized and rescinded language banning dreadlocks, Afros, mohawks and other “faddish” hairstyles it had called unacceptable and potential health hazards.
A few weeks earlier, another charter school, the Horizon Science Academy in Lorain, Ohio, sent a draft policy home to parents that proposed a ban on “Afro-puffs and small twisted braids.” It, too, quickly apologized and withdrew the wording.
But at historically black Hampton University in Hampton, Va., the dean of the business school has defended and left in place a 12-year-old prohibition on dreadlocks and cornrows for male students in a leadership seminar for MBA candidates.
Tiana’s father, barber student Terrance Parker, said he and his wife chose not to change her style and moved the straight-A student to a different public school, where she now happily sings songs about her hair with friends.
“I think it stills hurts her. But the way I teach my kids is regardless of what people say, you be yourself and you be happy with who you are and how God made you,” he said.
Mothers of color and black beauty experts consider the controversies business as usual.
“Our girls are always getting messages that tell them that they are not good enough, that they don’t look pretty enough, that their skin isn’t light enough, that their hair isn’t long enough, that their hair isn’t blond enough,” said Beverly Bond of the New York-based esteem-building group Black Girls Rock. “The public banning of our hair or anything about us that looks like we look, it feels like it’s such a step backward.”
In Chicago, Leila Noelliste has been blogging about natural hair at Blackgirllonghair.com for about five years. The 28-year-old mother with a natural hairstyle and two daughters who also wear their hair that way said it is a touchy issue among African-Americans and others.
“This is the way the hair grows out of my head, yet it’s even shocking in some black communities, because we’ve kind of been told culturally that to be acceptable and to make other people kind of comfortable with the way that we look, we should straighten our hair, whether through heat or chemicals,” she said. “So whether we’re in non-black communities or black communities, with our natural hair, we stand out. It evokes a lot of reaction.”
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said legal rulings on hair and other issues pertaining to school dress codes have been fairly clear.
“For decades now, Supreme Court precedent has reaffirmed that clothing, including hairstyle, is part of a student’s speech, and if you’re going to interfere with that, then the school district has to make some findings beforehand demonstrating that there is an immediate threat to the academic environment,” he said. “That wasn’t the case here and in most dress-code cases.”