Hair Policies: Modern Assimilation, Erasure, and Barriers to African-American Access
By now, most of us have seen the recent headlines surrounding several schools that have removed Black students for their natural or culturally significant hairstyles. First, I heard the story of Faith Fennidy, 11, who was removed from her class at Christ The King Elementary School in Terrytown, Louisiana last week because her box braids were said to be in violation of the school’s hair policy. Although it has been reported that Faith wore her hair in braids to school with no issues for the past two years, the hair policy in question was reportedly enacted this summer. As the outrage unfolded surrounding her case, the A Books Christian Academy in Apopka, Florida also refused to allow 6-year old Clinton Stanley, Jr. to attend classes if his locs were not cut to comply with the school’s short hair policy.
Caption: Clinton “C.J.” Stanley, Jr. dressed for his first day of school, before being denied entry for his locs.
Back-to-school season is in full effect and I am not at all surprised by this issue being in the news once again, especially living in Trump’s America. Aiding my lack of shock is that fact that I also have personal experience with attending schools with similar hair policies. Growing up, I did not see an issue with these rules, mostly due to my early immersion and conformity to the social norms of those environments. I remember being told and submitting at an early age to the idea that the hair sections of my schools’ dress codes were reflective of the standards of excellence upheld by those wishing to succeed in the professional realms of corporate America. However, as a grown woman who has since rejected Eurocentric standards as baseline indicators of beauty, become completely accepting of my natural strands, and grown to understand that my excellence is not compromised nor contingent upon my natural hairstyle, I now also reject rules like those keeping Faith Fennidy, Clinton Stanley, Jr., and other Black children out of school. Apart from the hair policies themselves, which obviously disproportionately target Black students and the hairstyles associated with their cultural identity, there are several other layers to these stories which are very striking, troubling, and all-too-familiar.
Specifically striking is the common theme that both schools at the center of these reports are private, Christian institutions.
This is particularly interesting because of the historic racist undertone that has always been present in American Christianity, as it relates to white practice. During slavery, Christianity and the Bible were manipulated by slave masters to justify the systems of forced labor and racial oppression. Racist white Americans have historically also cited the Bible to defend their prejudice and add false legitimacy to their claims of white superiority. And even now, domestic hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan still use the Bible to defend their cause of upholding white supremacy, as seen on the United Northern and Southern Knights of the KKK website which specifically refers to their organization as one that is “Christian,” and aims to stand up for other White, Christian Americans. While I am not arguing that all white Christians are racist—because I am well aware that this is not the case—the point remains that there has always been a clear racial divide in American applications of Christian principles, which has often opened the door for perpetual racial discrimination and/or exclusion.
So why is any of that relevant in discussing school hair policies? The answer is simple.
At the root of these recent stories, religion, education, and discrimination have all intersected in their own ways to provide a space for two things to occur: modern-day forced assimilation and additional barriers to educational access for Black students.
Here we have two Black families who chose to pay for their children attend to private schools, probably believing that their kids would receive a more well-rounded, higher quality of education than they may have had access to in the public-school system. They likely spent significant time and money through the admissions process to secure a spot for what they thought would be a better opportunity, just for their children to be inhibited by discriminatory hair regulations. In the same way that religion played a significant role in American colonization, it is unfortunately also at the center of these cases of exclusion, forcing these students and their parents to either conform by erasing the hairstyles associated with their Blackness or be kicked out of their respective schools.
Some may say that my view on this is extreme because attending schools with these types of policies is usually a choice to some degree, however, I counter that logic with this:
Why must the choice to pursue high quality education (which should be available to everyone anyway) be met with a requirement to erase parts of oneself?
Why is it that Black hairstyles so often fall under the categories of “unkempt,” or “untidy” —including those in which hair is worn in the natural state that it grows on a person’s head—yet other groups’ hair does not. When Sally comes to school with lice, a notice is sent out for other parents to check their children, but Sally won’t have a suspension or expulsion on her record. However, Faith and Clinton come to school with braids and locs, ready to learn, and they are denied the chance to continue being educated until they adopt a hairstyle that is more palpable to whites in positions of power.
Too often, Black children are forced to strip elements of their cultural identity in the classroom in ways that white students are not. Then, they grow into adults who face the same discrimination in the workplace; and it quite simply is not right.
Yes, schools are allowed to create whatever policies they deem necessary for the creation of effective learning environments, whether or not they are private Christian institutions. However, a moral and ethical line is crossed when policies are established in any environment that only apply certain rules to certain groups of people.
When schools, and the businesses for which they claim to prepare students, specifically categorize hairstyles like braids, locs, and natural textures, as “distracting,” “unkempt,” or “unacceptable,” they are essentially perpetuating the fallacy of whiteness being the standard of professionalism and attractiveness.
Adding the backdrop of a Christian school, my second issue with these policies then lies in the fact that I am also a Christian, and the God that I know and serve is one who is inclusive in His offerings of love, teachings, and covering to people of all nations, races, hair textures, economic statuses, educational levels, and so on. His teachings promote kindness, love, and compassion to all, yet in our country, room is made for division in so many schools and institutions supposedly erected in His name. It is unjust, uncalled for, and unfair for Black people, and any other people of color, to be denied their education or professional opportunities based on wearing hairstyles related to their identity. As long as hair is neatly styled and clean, nothing else should matter.
As with so many other things, the issue isn’t just about the hairstyles targeted by such asinine policies; it’s about the bigger picture of the people connected to the hairstyles.
It’s about the fact that Black girls, boys, women, and men cannot peacefully wear their hair however they please in their respective spaces of education and business, meanwhile Kardashians and Fox Sports anchors can proudly display the same hairstyles African Americans are punished for. It’s about America’s centuries-long history of policing Black hair and bodies in order to sanitize and erase us from certain spaces, including going so far as to create laws which prohibited Black women from showing their hair at all. It’s about the fact that there is an entire hair industry which thrives off the styling and restyling of Black hair every time we must try to find a way to conform in order to be deemed visually “acceptable” enough to learn or succeed professionally. Meanwhile, the Black community sees minimal return on that economic investment. I’m sleep though. The major issue is that discriminatory hair policies, like those at the Louisiana and Florida schools discussed earlier, contribute to the larger systems at work which constantly aim to limit or debilitate Black access, empowerment, growth, and success.
Caption: Many Black students and professionals are prohibited from wearing braids or locs to school or work, but Fox Sports anchor Charissa Thompson can go on the air like this.
Truthfully, my heart hurts for Faith, Clinton, and every other child who has stood in their shoes, including those in my own community. It is my hope that their families will counter the sentiments implied by their schools, by instilling into them the notion that they are brilliant, acceptable, and filled with greatness just the way they are, and that there is no shame in wearing their crowns. I also hope that as they grow, these children will carry their early experiences with discrimination as inspiration to keep pushing forward with confidence and call for change. As for the rest of us, it is our job to continue to voice our discontent with the hypocrisies of this world and educate the children in our lives to know their beauty and power from a young age, so that no one else can convince them that they are inadequate.
Be confident. Be unapologetic. Be loved.