Andrew Johnson, a varsity wrestler at Buena Regional High School in New Jersey, scored a sudden victory over his opponent. Moments before the 16-year old’s fight began, he faced a decision–cut his hair or forfeit the match. Unwilling to give up, Johnson stood in the New jersey gym and watched as locs of his hair fell to the ground. Six months later and halfway across the country, Asia Somo, a senior and cheerleader at her high school in Louisiana, was dismissed from her school’s cheer team. The reason: Her hair didn’t conform to her coach’s standards. In Texas, Deandre Arnold was refused entrance to graduation. In Massachusetts, Maya and Deanna Cook were told they could not attend prom. In every case, their natural hair left them excluded from school events and activities, and the policies responsible have sparked a national debate.
Often unintentionally, schools are discriminating against Black students through their hair and dress code policies
Schools often put dress code policies in place for good reason, Usually to safeguard against bullying, or to limit the more extravagant clothing items that may cause distraction or disruption in the classroom. However, as natural hair on students of color becomes more commonplace, many policies are out-of-step. While many white students maintain their natural hair because of dress code and hair policies, students of color must go in the opposite direction, altering their hair from its natural state to avoid penalization. Policies like these lead to two different standards. Students of color are penalized for their natural hair while their counterparts are relatively unaffected, effectively enforcing two different norms.
School districts are often unaware of the issues with their dress codes, as many of these policies are written without any input from the diverse group of people that will make up the school’s population. When the public does recognize this problem and informs the district, schools are usually unwilling to put in the work to alter their policies to be more inclusive, and instead opt for the easier route: to deny any fault and continue as normal.
Failure to address dress code discrimination is harmful to all students and has far-reaching effects
Many school dress code policies are culturally insensitive and have a disproportionately negative impact on Black students and students of color, leaving many students of color feeling excluded and marginalized. Marginalized students may be bullied, distracted, or become distractions in the classroom.
As students enter adulthood and begin their careers, the dress norms enforced in schools are carried over. Many Black adults have anxiety about their hair when entering the workforce. News anchor Renee Murphy told ABC News, “I have an afro… thought about coming to work several times with it out, but always decided against it”. Black adults often decide against their natural hairstyles, instead, opting to alter it for fear of hair discrimination.
School policies enforce a norm for how to dress, a norm that is often promoted as the norm for success even once students leave school and enter their careers. How can we dedicate ourselves to ending discrimination if schools continue–through their lack of action–to inadvertently teach that discriminatory policies are acceptable?