The federal government and the Department of Education need to start taking their responsibility for prohibiting discrimination seriously and crack down on schools that punish black people for their hair and hair styles. It’s past time the DOE issued guidance, telling schools to leave black students’ hair alone.
When 16-year-old twins Mya and Deanna Cook went to Mystic Valley Regional Charter School with braided hair extensions in 2017, the school issued several infractions to both of them and asked the black girls to step out of class. The school, located just north of Boston, had previously banned hair extensions, which were deemed “distracting” by school administration officials. Since the girls refused to “fix” their hair, they were barred from extracurricular activities, prom, and threatened with suspension. The girls’ mother claims that other black girls with hair extensions have also been pulled out of class and given detention. Parents of the twins pointed out to administrators that white girls wearing extensions, as pictured in the school’s year book, were not punished.
Hair bans do include hair styles worn by (few) white students — blue hair, two-toned hair — but the bottom line is these prohibitions are very subjective, driven by a negative view of blackness, which disproportionately impacts black students.
In 2016, Butler Traditional High School, a public high school in Kentucky, introduced a new dress code policy banning twists, dreadlocks, afros longer than two inches, jewelry worn in hair, and cornrows — misspelled as “cornrolls” — asserting that these styles are “extreme, distracting, or attention-getting.” Students found in violation would not be allowed to attend school until they corrected their attire, disproportionately affecting black students.
Last year, school leaders at Christ the King Parish School in Terrytown, Louisiana, asked 11-year-old Faith Fennidy to leave class because her braided hair extensions were in violation of the school’s rules. The policy, introduced at the beginning of the year, read, “Only the student’s natural hair is permitted. Extensions, wigs, hair pieces of any kind are not allowed.”
Present-day efforts in schools to police and “fix” black students’ hair is a vestige of our segregated past that deemed blackness inferior and the emulation of whites as the route towards assimilation The harmful effects of demonizing blackness were demonstrated in the famous baby-doll test, in which young African-American children were presented with similar black and white diaper-clad baby dolls and were asked which one was “pretty or good” or “ugly or bad.” Children consistently said the black dolls were ugly and bad. The results of that test helped plaintiffs win the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine that enshrined legal segregation of the races.
By regulating hair styles that are suitable for black hair specifically, and vastly more popular among black people than any other group, as part of a supposedly neutral dress code, schools are getting away with violating federal law — codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.
School administrators —and sometimes even parents — see black hair as inherently bad, unprofessional and limiting. Some would have students wear hairstyles that are rooted in an aversion to blackness rather than the qualities of hair in its natural state. The styles that are closer to what white people wear or what is acceptable to white people are often encouraged. Permed straight hair wrapped tight in a ponytail isn’t questioned but dreadlocks in that same ponytail are. A boy’s short, faded hair cut won’t make him smarter or a school lesson more rigorous than an afro. Cornrows are not an alteration of hair’s natural state, any more than a French braid — or any braids — are. Question, would a French braid get a white kid put out of school?
Dress codes are supposed inspire uniformity. But for black students, uniformity too often translates to conformity — to whiteness. Reductionist uniformity in hair has no place in our schools, though many dress codes try to enforce it. Schools must be open to the diversity of their students. They must see the strengths and assets that students bring to school. Students learn from schools’ discipline policies as much as they do from teachers’ instruction. And these hair code policies reinforce the idea that black students and blackness are of lesser value.
Twisting, braiding and locking (the process of creating dreadlocks) may not be suitable for thin straight hair, but they are proper for kinky, curly hair. Consequently, school rules must adjust to hairstyles that are well suited for black hair rather than have students adapt to racist conceptualizations of black people.
The disregard of federal discrimination law around “dealing with” black people’s hair epitomizes why the federal government periodically issues Dear Colleague or guidance letters to help schools avoid violating the law.
Late last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded a 2014 Obama administration guidance that sought to “assist states, districts and schools in developing practices and strategies to enhance school climate, and ensure those policies and practices comply with federal law.” President Obama issued the guidance based on U.S. Department of Education findings that black students were “suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students.” Since Obama issued those guidelines, suspensions and expulsions declined. Nonetheless, DeVos believed Obama’s guidelines encroached upon teachers’ and school leaders’ autonomy to dispense appropriate disciplinary measures.
“In too many instances, though, I’ve heard from teachers and advocates that the previous administration’s discipline guidance often led to school environments where discipline decisions were based on a student’s race and where statistics became more important than the safety of students and teachers,” DeVos said in a statement.
However, if there is an issue in which schools need guidance, it’s around black hair.
Last month, New York City took an important step in eliminating hair policies that are racially biased. The New York City Commission on Human Rights issued guidance that “grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people generally violate the NYCHRL’s anti-discrimination provisions.” The guidance made clear that policies could not prohibit “hair textures that are common among people of African descent, natural hair texture that is tightly-coiled or tightly-curled as well as hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, and Afros are those most closely associated with Black people.”
Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education must issue their own guidance to curtail the everyday discrimination that traumatizes our children. Black hair isn’t holding students’ education back, but the federal government’s dereliction of duty is.
This story about hair discrimination in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.