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Hair Politics: How discrimination against Black hair in schools impacts Black lives

On August 9, 2018, 11-year-old Faith Fennidy started her first day of sixth grade at Christ the King Parish School in Terrytown, Louisiana. According to The New York Times, school officials approached Fennidy to tell her that her hairstyle “did not align with school policy.” About a week later, the Times reported, after her parents spent a “considerable amount of money” changing her hair, school officials told Fennidy that her new box braids were unacceptable—even though she had previously worn braids at the school for two years—because of a new policy against hair extensions introduced that summer. The school didn’t wait for Fennidy to try again: This time, they told her not to come back. It was the day before picture day.

A viral video erupted. Originally shared by Fennidy’s brother and viewed millions of times since then, the video shows Fennidy crying and packing her things as her parents argue to administrators that her hair is fine as is and that her teachers are deliberately humiliating her in front of her peers.

Within a week, both Fennidy’s family and the family of her classmate Tyrielle Davis, who was also sent home around the same time because of her hair, decided to sue the school in a joint lawsuit. After public outcry, Christ the King Parish School quickly rescinded the controversial new policy banning hair extensions, and the school’s pastor welcomed both girls to return.

However, much of the vague, exclusionary language often used against Black hairstyles—hair “should not interfere with the learning process,” or be “faddish” or “inappropriate,” and should be “neat, clean, conservative” and “conventional” —remains in the school’s dress code.

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In this article, “Black hair” refers to naturally curly- or coily-textured hair as well as traditional Black hairstyles such as locs, braided extensions, twists, and fades. The unique texture of natural Black hair has always allowed it to be sculpted and molded in a way that hair of other textures could not replicate, intensifying the significance of hair to Black culture. For example, in various parts of Africa, hairstyle can be a symbol of status, age, marriage, religion, or class.

During the slave trade, European colonizers in the United States recognized the centrality of hair to Black cultures and subverted it. Slave owners routinely shaved enslaved Africans’ hair in attempts to strip them of their cultural identity and humanity. The American lexicon adopted rhetoric used to demonize black hair, including “nappy,” “wooly like fur,” and “coarse.” The idea of “good hair” was propagated to uphold a Eurocentric standard of beauty and to form a rift within the Black community. This rift dates back to slavery and is tied to the development of colorism on plantations. Indeed, straighter hair emulated whiteness—and was therefore better. Enslaved people who worked in fields often had darker skin and tighter curl textures, and they were forced to shave or cover their hair because slave owners deemed it “offensive” and “unpresentable.” Enslaved people who worked in houses usually had lighter skin and looser curl textures because they were born from white masters and enslaved Black women. Their looser curl textures made their hair more “presentable” because it was associated with their relative whiteness. White masters created this dichotomy between lighter skin Black people with “good” hair and darker skin Black people with “bad” hair.

These practices, rooted in colorism on plantations, contributed to a trend in the 19th century’s beauty industry to create products that “fixed” Black beauty problems. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Black beauty industry was booming. Major figures like Madame CJ Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in the United States, and Anna Turbo Malone, another prominent millionaire who gave Walker her start in the hair care industry, rose to prominence. Inventions such as the straightening comb and chemical straightening hair care lines made straight hair more accessible and safer to achieve for Black women, who previously relied on lye-based straightening techniques that burned the scalp. Until the 1960s, straightening natural Black hair, even for young children, was normalized. Thus, even in the era of school desegregation following Brown v. Board of Education, which emphasized the inherent equality of races, the Black beauty industry was developed around helping Black women emulate whiteness.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Black natural hair was rapidly politicized and associated with Black power and freedom movements. Think Cicely Tyson, Angela Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and Jesse Jackson. Afros, cornrows, and locs grew in popularity throughout the African Diaspora. These new conceptions of natural hair were influenced by prominent moments and actors in civil rights and Black activism history such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision upholding affirmative action, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Black Panther Party, the Combahee River Collective, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

However, in the 1980s, American society at large reverted to old racist stereotypes of natural hair. Chemical straighteners and permed styles like the Jheri curl rose in popularity. Then, Black protective hairstyles like locs and braids—which are culturally significant and practical—became increasingly disparaged across the country. Administrators and employers deemed Black hair “unprofessional.” School policies banning and demeaning Black hair as “inappropriate” and a “signal of gang affiliation” were on the rise.

From the 1990s onwards, although Black natural hair was often still marginalized, the natural hair movement began to grow again among Black people in the United States and especially among Black women. The decade marked the rise of terms like “going natural.” The internet and, eventually, social media played a significant role in developing a global community of natural hair bloggers who shared their hair experiences and demonstrated natural hair “how-tos.” Famous Black artists and actors began using their platform to talk about natural hair and show their own; while movies and music like Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988), Chris Rock’s Good Hair (2009), Regina Kimbell’s My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage (2010), and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” (2016) made conversations about natural hair accessible to a wide audience.

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Today, although the movement to embrace natural Black hair is growing rapidly and spreading awareness of the discriminatory societal norms constructed against Black hair, policies that explicitly ban Black hairstyles from schools and workplaces continue to plague Black people across the country. These policies have existed for decades, but social media has made instances of discrimination more visible.

Take Fennidy, who faced discrimination for her box braids last fall. Box braids protect hair from constant manipulation, which is especially important because curly hair tends to be dry and prone to split ends and breakage. Protective styling like box braids also saves the hours that washing curly hair can take—or, as some say, “wash days.” When Fennidy was first disciplined for her hairstyle, her mother took her to get box braids done, a style that can cost between 100 and 200 dollars. The school first failed to recognize the financial burden of making Fennidy restyle her hair and additionally failed to appreciate the practicality of her new hairstyle.

In May 2017, 17-year-old Jenesis Johnson at North Florida Christian High School was subject to new, discriminatory hair policies like those Fennidy faced. After wearing her hair in an afro at the school on and off for years and daily for seven months, Johnson suddenly received frequent questioning from a teacher, who interrogated her about her hair and subsequently sent her to the assistant principal’s office. There, the assistant principal told Johnson that her hair was “inappropriate,” in need of being “fixed” and “in a style,” “not neat,” “extreme and faddish and out of control,” and “all over the place.” Furthermore, Johnson was told that while she could finish the last week of school with her afro, she would be allowed back at the school in the fall only if she changed her hair.

Sudden changes in school policies are a common form of discrimination against Black hair. In June 2013, Horizon Science Academy, a public charter school in Lorian, Ohio, banned Black hairstyles such as “afro-puffs”—essentially a ponytail for anyone with curly hair—and “small twisted braids” in the school’s new dress code policy, which was quickly revised due to backlash.

In September 2014, a Black student with dreadlocks at South Plaquemines High School in Louisiana was told by administrators that he could not return to school “as long as his hair remains in dreadlocks,” which were considered too long for a boy’s hair. The discipline occurred even though administrators were aware of the student’s Rastafarian religion, which requires men to not cut their hair and to wear it in long dreadlocks. In December 2018, social media erupted after Andrew Johnson, a Black high school varsity wrestler from Buena Regional High School in New Jersey, was forced by a referee with a history of alleged racist behavior to cut his already-short dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match. The referee claimed Johnson’s hair length and head gear were against the rules, despite the fact that Johnson had played with dreadlocks in the past. No coaches, teammates, or adults from the crowd stepped in to defend him before someone cut off his hair to continue the match.

Some schools have policies that explicitly ban Black hairstyles. In August 2013, seven-year-old Tiana Parker had her hair in dreadlocks, which school administrators at Deborah Brown Community School, a public charter school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told her were not “presentable” and would “distract from the respectful and serious atmosphere [the school] strives for.” The school’s dress code specifically stated that traditional Black hairstyles such as “dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” Other schools’ policies don’t explicitly ban Black hairstyles, but rather implicitly do so by demanding straight hair. Amber Young, a current sophomore at Yale University from Atlanta, Georgia, has been cheerleading for years. Both in high school and when she first came to Yale, cheerleading coaches “required that every cheerleader’s hair be fully blown out and straightened so that [they] all looked ‘uniform.’” However, in doing so they “implicitly stated that natural hair is not allowed while wearing a cheer uniform,” Young says. In practice, the policy required Black girls, especially those with tighter curl types, to spend significant amounts of time straightening their hair weekly.

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Even schools that do not have policies against Black hair can also contribute to a hostile environment that harms Black students wearing natural or traditional hairstyles. Anna McNeil, a current junior at Yale University, went to a predominately white private high school in New York. During her senior year there, her white female music teacher began petting her hair and said, “Wow! It feels like a poodle!” When McNeil was clearly uncomfortable, her teacher proceeded to say, “I just wonder what it’s like to have interesting hair.”

In June 2010, an eight-year-old Black girl at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle, Washington was removed from her classroom without communication to her parents because the smell of her hair product—made by ORS, a popular natural hair company—made her teacher “sick.” This year, Eduardo Leal, a current sophomore at Yale from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, began “transitioning” to natural hair. “Transitioning” is a term used to describe when Black people stop using heat or chemicals to straighten their hair and instead wear it in its natural state. Although he has only worn his hair without it being flat-ironed twice this semester, once “a ‘friend’ just laughed” and another said that his hair had “exploded.” In December 2014, five-year-old Jalyn Broussard and his parents in Belmont, California were told by his kindergarten teacher in front of his entire class that his hair was inappropriate and distracting to other students, even though Jalyn had a similar haircut to many of his white classmates. The examples go on.

When schools do have codified, discriminatory hair policies, those rules represent a small but effective way to criminalize the Black body, further school pushout, and say, “Your appearance is more important than your education.” It has been well researched that all Black children are subject to school discipline at much higher rates than their peers. According to a 2018 study published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Black students only make up 15.5 percent of all public school students but make up around 39 percent of public school students suspended from school; they are even more overrepresented in suspensions at magnet and charter schools. In fact, Black students are overrepresented in all types of discipline, including out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions, referral to law enforcement, expulsion, corporal punishment, and school-related arrest nationally from around 10 to 23 percent, according to this study. Furthermore, in 2018, the National Women’s Law Center published “DRESS CODED: Black girls, bodies, and bias in D.C schools.” The report, co-authored by 21 Black girls currently in D.C. public schools, reveals that Black girls in D.C. are 20.8 times more likely to be suspended than white girls. Moreover, 74 percent of D.C. public high school dress codes—in which rules about hair are often written—allow for disciplinary action that could lead to missed class or school, despite D.C. Public Schools policy forbidding suspensions for dress code violations.

Finally, chemically straightened Black hair is a major health risk. Frequent use of chemical relaxers—which have toxic ingredients like sodium hydroxide and calcium hydroxide—has been linked to scalp lesions and burns, increased risk of uterine fibroids, and possible injury to the mouth and esophagus if ingested. Databases such as the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database for Black Hair Care place hair relaxers anywhere from 4 to 10 on a scale of least hazardous (1) to most hazardous (10). To some extent, Black consumers are becoming more aware of these risks, and according to Mintel, a market intelligence agency, hair relaxer sales have dropped 36 percent from 2012 to 2017. But school dress code policies that ban natural hair and demand “neatness” and school sports policies that require straight hair in the name of uniformity only encourage Black people to reach for relaxers—despite blatant health risks—because they can create the desired straight, Eurocentric look for longer periods of time.

Hair management is also seen as a barrier to physical exercise among many Black people, especially Black women. In a 2014 paper in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, Black women with straightened hair textures reported that their hair care regimens—whether flat ironing, regular salon visits, or chemical relaxers—were a deterrent from physical exercise, since they feared their sweat would mess up their hair. In a study cited by the paper, nearly 40 percent of Black women had avoided exercise due to hair care concerns, which is especially worrying when coupled with the fact that 78.2 percent of Black women above the age of 20 are overweight.

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There has been more positive work done around natural Black hair, but primarily only within the last decade. In February 2017, The Perception Institute conducted “The ‘Good Hair’ Study,” which illuminated the explicit and implicit bias against Black women with natural hair in a variety of settings including academia, the workplace, and romantic relationships. In February 2019, the New York Commission on Human Rights issued a guidance stating that the New York City Human Rights Law “protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities”; the guidance continues to specifically cite the right that Black people have to wear styles like “locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, [and] Afros.”

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Even after reading how hair has been a crucial yet demeaned aspect of Black culture for centuries, some might ask why school administrators need to familiarize themselves with this information and act on it. To that I ask, why would you make policies that ban or demean hairstyles you know nothing about if you’re not acting on the deep-rooted assumptions that Black hair is “nappy,” “faddish,” “distracting,” “unpresentable,” “not neat,” “unprofessional,” “inappropriate,” or just “bad”? These policies grounded in racism persecute Black youth and question whether they are worthy of respect and education.

I am not arguing that any Black person who doesn’t wear their hair in a traditional Black hairstyle or in its natural state is trying to assimilate to unjust Eurocentric beauty standards. That argument has been made for years within and without the Black community. Plenty of Black people like wearing their hair straight because they just like the way it looks or because they’re wearing straight weaves or wigs to protect their natural hair underneath.

I am saying that school policies and microaggressions reinforce the idea that Black hair, as it naturally grows and as it has historically been styled, is “bad” because it’s not white enough—and that those policies are part of a nationwide anti-Blackness problem. It goes beyond hair when across the country, school policies use the same language and reasoning to ban Black hairstyles. It goes beyond hair when these policies are grounds for discipline or removal from school entirely. It goes beyond hair when getting an education requires you to have “good” straight hair that comes at the cost of your health.

These policies and cultures of behavior surrounding Black hair have serious implications for Black health, Black educational access, Black self-love, and Black lives. For schools to recognize that their policies and behaviors around Black hair continue to uphold whiteness as the standard of all things good and beautiful—and then make a change—would be to hold themselves accountable for their anti-Blackness.