Long or short, braided or pony-tailed, blow-dried or worn exactly as it grows from the scalp—hair is so closely tied to individual identity that it stirs emotions. It’s a form of self-expression. That’s why so-called dress codes that are being wielded as weapons against students and their hairstyles are so egregious.
Even if you’ve only paid cursory attention to recent news items, you’ve likely noticed several related to students’ hairstyles or the covering of their hair over the past few years. Premised on the idea that certain hairstyles are “disruptive” or that the inclusion of hair extensions is somehow unacceptable, students are being singled out for a variety of punishments. Yet, while rules serve a purpose—ostensibly, delineating what is and is not acceptable—these supposed dress code violations involving hair are not equally applied. And that’s the problem.
In short, students of color seem to be the ones repeatedly accused of dress code violations based solely on hair. Of course, they are the ones ostracized and otherwise punished by school authorities as well. “Twin 16-year-old sisters, Mya and Deanna Cook, for example, who live just north of Boston, discovered this when they were barred from prom, removed from all their extracurricular activities and threatened with suspension all because their braids included hair extensions. As the girls’ parents pointed out, to no avail, white girls wore hair extensions to school as well, and were even photographed wearing them in the school yearbook. Yet those students faced no repercussions.
Similarly, Butler Traditional High School, a public high school in Kentucky, changed their dress code a few years ago. It now specifically includes prohibition of “twists, dreadlocks, afros longer than two inches, jewelry worn in hair, and cornrows,” which they misspelled as “cornrolls.” Clearly, this amendment to the dress code is intended solely for students of color, who are almost exclusively the ones who wear these styles.
Moreover, even girls who choose not to show their hair at all are not safe from the arbitrary imposition of rules and punishments, as was demonstrated at a cross country meet in Ohio just a few weeks ago. When 16-year-old Noor Alexandria Abukaram crossed the finish line, her seventh time doing so this year, she discovered that the hijab that covered her hair in accordance with Muslim tradition had disqualified her. This was despite the fact that she had worn the same hijab during the previous six cross country races as well as in other sports, without incident.
Not to be left out of these discriminatory practices, boys of color experience punishment for their chosen hairstyles as well. A case in point, six-year-old Clinton Stanley, Jr. was denied entry into his Florida elementary school because he wore dreadlocks. Meanwhile, New Jersey teen Andrew Johnson was forced to cut off his dreadlocks on the spot or forfeit his wrestling match.
Just a few among numerous instances of students of color being singled out for reprimand and negative consequences not exacted against white students, they highlight discrimination against students of color and their natural hair. Not merely a matter of taste or opinion, these increasing instances of hair discrimination convey disrespect for cultural differences and contempt for a feature that epitomizes beauty, heritage and pride for students of color.
These are not dress codes; they’re race codes, a way of codifying racism, bigotry and prejudice. What’s most distressing is that these actions are not done in a vacuum, carried out by people who have no concept of the importance of hair nor any understanding of the strong links between hair and race, culture or even religion. No, these actions are being perpetrated by educated people, those given the responsibility of educating others. Yet these educators are those actively seeking to undermine students’ sense of pride and to express their own disdain for students’ race, culture and faith.
Such educators seek to impose white standards of beauty, clearly deeming only styles worn by white students to be acceptable even when they mimic those of students of color. In so doing, these educators seek to teach students of color that their personal statement, one that expresses an important aspect of who they are, is inferior and viewed with distaste. Equally appalling, they instill a false sense of superiority in white students who witness these atrocities, encouraging them to behave the same.
California and New York made good first steps this past summer when the governors of each state signed laws prohibiting discrimination based on natural hairstyles. Yet there should be no need for laws to require people to relinquish their prejudices. Parents, along with educators with integrity, must take a vocal stand against all forms of prejudice and discrimination against students. We cannot accept this stripping away of students’ humanity. Instead, we must refuse to comply with these violations of human dignity, refuse to bow to dehumanizing standards, refuse to allow any students to be treated as if they don’t matter.