Getting the Hang of Hair, Part 1
by Billie Wade, guest blogger
(April 2020) — Hair is the most prominent ornamentation of the human body, a hallmark of our common humanity. Hair plays a significant role in identity and self-expression. Black people, as a collective, are proud of our hair and enjoy creating styles to showcase it. When hair gets tangled in biases and prejudices, the result is racism, bolstered by narrow, arbitrarily applied interpretations of policies and practices.
Our White-dominated culture stresses conformity regarding the behavior, dress, and speech of People of Color. We must assimilate. We are to act White and remember we are not. Through cultural appropriation, White people freely wear the styles they punish Black people for wearing.
If White people sense Black hair styles are too attractive or too expressive, they issue mandates. They use excuses the styles are distracting or dirty. One White school administrator said the hairstyles are obviously expensive and subjugate the policy of equality the school is trying to cultivate. This flimsy excuse attempts to disguise biases and profiling.
In October 2017, the manager of a Banana Republic store called nineteen-year-old Destiny Thompkins’s hairstyle “too urban and unkempt” for the company’s image. He said he could not schedule her if she did not remove her braids. The company fired him for discrimination and issued a statement about its diversity policy. Kudos to Banana Republic.
In Spring 2018, an administrator called a fourteen-year-old boy into the office because his hairstyle was “distracting.” His mother shared his story on social media prompting involvement by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The school district now plans to update its twenty-six-year-old dress code.
In August 2018, school officials sent eleven-year-old Faith Fennidy home because her hairstyle violated the school’s rules and told her to not return. White administrators drafted the school’s policy about wigs, hair pieces, and extensions because they considered such styles as fads and inappropriate. Faith’s brother posted her ejection from school on social media, and her parents retained an attorney. The school later asked her to return.
In August 2018, a school turned away six-year-old first-grader C. J. Stanley when he showed up the first day wearing dreadlocks.
In December 2018, a White high school wrestling official gave Andrew Johnson an ultimatum to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match. The referee did not allow him to cover his hair. He permitted someone to cut his hair and won his 120-pound wresting match. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) organized an investigation and issued a recommendation to not assign the referee to future events until they more thoroughly reviewed the incident.
Black hair fascinates White people. They want to touch it to find out how it differs from their own. White strangers reach up and touch or stroke Black people’s hair without asking permission. It is the presumption of White privilege—White people believe they have a right to do whatever they want anytime they want to whomever they choose, without consequences. The answer to such demeaning invasion is, “No.” Violating someone’s personal space is never okay.
“Hairism” is used to further restrain Black people from equal opportunity. We must keep the dialogue going about this pervasive emotional assault on Black people. We must stand up to those who offer feeble excuses for discriminatory dress codes and policies. We must praise Black youngsters about the preciousness of their identity and its expression. Often, we must hold conversations in the media, social media, and courtrooms. So be it.
Note: Watch for Getting the Hang of Hair, Part 2 in May 2021