Why We Care About Hair

It may be time for the Dekalb School Board or the Georgia Legislature to tighten the reigns on the freedom of their schools to create rules.  The freedom given to a Dekalb County elementary school,  Narvie J. Harris Theme School, has caused a problem at the start of this school year.  

During this year’s school orientation, the school posted photos identifying certain hairstyles as “appropriate” and “inappropriate.”  Some parents are in an uproar while other’s simply think it is a lesson in uniformity and following the rules. 

Social Media post by a parent visiting Narvie J. Harris Theme School orientation.

The State of California just passed a law making it illegal to discriminate against natural hair.  When we refer to “natural hair” we are talking about the texture in which the hair naturally grows out of one’s head[i]. If we are discussing hairstyles in the military[ii], state legislatures[iii] and the Supreme Court[iv], then it may be prudent for others to understand why hair has become political and why we care about the rules related to hair. 

Safety and uniformity are valid reasons to put parameters on hairstyles in a school or work setting.  But when a policy is based on inherent, historical, or societal biases rather than safety they may need to be re-evaluated.

It is true, Narvie J. Harris is predominantly African American school.  Yet, African Americans can also push forward unconscious biases they did not know they held.  The biases we Americans have, no matter our race, come from the same place.  Bias against hair is rooted in the racial history of America.  From the moment blacks first set foot on American soil, Caucasian hair was deemed the default that everyone should strive to attain.  This standard is perpetuated even today by the images we see on television and magazines, in our workplace, and now in our schools.   

Do you have inherent hair biases related to hair?  Let’s take a test.  Scroll the photos below. What do you think when you see the below styles?  Have you ever looked at any of these styles and thought they were unkempt or unclean?  Do you think any would not be appropriate in your workplace or school?   

The styles above were similar to those deemed “inappropriate” at Narvie J. Harris Theme School. If you agree that the parents should simply follow the rules or you agree with the school that these styles were “inappropriate,” then scroll and take a look at these photos below.

Do you also find these styles unacceptable?  Do you think it appropriate, outside of a military school, to require every single male child to wear their hair in a crew cut rather than the styles above?  Did appropriateness or cleanliness come to mind when you saw these photos? 

All of these styles show hair in its natural form and should all be accepted in every environment. No matter how you faired in the above test, you should know it is more than just personal opinion.  In this case it is not just the fact the school created this policy.  It is also about how they promoted the policy using the terms “appropriate” and “inappropriate.”  The terms “school approved” or “hair accessories must be in school colors” may have made a difference in this case.  Why?  Because throughout the history of America, African Americans have been told that their hair was wrong, bad, nappy, and INAPPROPRIATE.    

In corporate America, straight hair for women has been the norm.  Not wearing straight hair, such as afros, twists, braids, or locs have prevented African Americans from obtaining jobs or promotions.  We are not talking about bright pink hair as a lawyer – we are talking texture.  This is why putting into the minds of elementary school children a false narrative is such big deal to many.

Imagine if you will a workplace or school rule that requires every male to use harsh chemicals to remove or change the texture of their eyebrow, nose, arm and leg hair.  Imagine if the executives of a firm passed over men who let their arm and leg hair fly free as it naturally grows.  No matter how hard hairy Harry works he is “inappropriate” for a promotion because he won’t follow the norms as set by his hairless colleagues. 

Imagine hairless male colleagues pulling their co-worker to the side and telling him that if he wants to move up in the company he must to spend two hours every week getting his hair waxed, buffed, and polished.  Sounds crazy right?  Makes you think – what does the texture or length of one’s arm hair have to do with any profession (except male exotic dancers -they should definitely be hairless)?  Nothing – as does the style of hair on a child in elementary school or a professional in a workplace.  Yet, long and arduous processes to straighten their hair is exactly what black women have done for over a century in America to be “appropriate.”

Quick history lesson.  Post slavery, hot combs, which are metal combs that were heated on a stove or in a fire were used to straighten hair to replicate straight Caucasian hair.  The excessive heat is damaging to all hair. In the 1909, black inventor Garrett Morgan created a chemical treatment that caused the same effect as the straightening comb.  The harsh chemicals also often caused scabs and injury to the scalp.  But black men and women underwent the harsh and expensive treatments in an effort to avoid being deemed “inappropriate.” 

In the 1970’s black people began embracing their natural hair and sporting full beautiful afros.  However, tying the afro to the black power movement of the 60’s and 70’s then created another inherent bias.  There was a widely held belief that blacks who wore their hair naturally were one of those “revolutionaries” that some did not want in their schools or workplace.   Black people who wanted upward mobility had to distance themselves from the black power movement by straightening their hair and later using hair weave to replicate the long straight hair of white women. 

Today, more black inventors, chemist, and beauticians have created products that support the natural curl pattern of our beautiful bouncy fros.  African Americans are obtaining positions of authority in television and media that allow them to display images of our natural hair such that it is embraced not as a statement of revolution but simply a hair style.  These images make it easier to resist the urge and pressure to chemically change our hair such that it is “appropriate.”    

The problem with the policy and photos at Narvie J. Harris Theme School was not that they created a uniform policy but that they did not even realize they were perpetuating stereotypes, creating insecurity in both our children and their parents, and preserving inherent biases created by white supremacy[v].  Elementary school is not the place we want to reinforce the idea that white hair styles are good and black hairstyles are “inappropriate.”  Requiring boys to cut their hair low is an attempt to hide the beautiful textures of our hair – rendering our natural textures as not professional.

During my personal natural hair journey, my colleague, Georgia State Representative Barry Flemming, complimented my natural hair mohawk.  I blushed and it temporarily felt like a moment of acceptance in the workplace because Representative Flemming liked it.  Here I am a lawyer and a legislator still worried about what people thought about my very neat and clean hairstyle.  Later, I felt disappointed in myself because of my own inherent bias.  I needed the approval of a non-black professional to feel I was “appropriate” and to be comfortable in the environment where we both worked.  That is why we call this natural hair experience a journey – because it is not just a journey in caring for our hair, but a journey in which we stop seeking the approval of others to know we are beautiful just the way we were created.

[i] If you see an African American woman with completely straight hair, more than likely she is not wearing her natural hair. It is rare for African American hair to grow completely straight from the scalp.

[ii] https://www.military.com/kitup/2018/07/13/here-are-rules-behind-navys-new-female-hair-regs.html

[iii] https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-pol-ca-natural-hair-discrimination-bill-20190703-story.html

[iv] https://rewire.news/ablc/2018/05/16/u-s-supreme-court-ignoring-black-hair-discrimination/

[v] White supremacy is the belief that the white race or characteristics thereof are better than or superior to all others.  It is not necessarily that someone is a racist or dislikes African Americans.  In this context, white supremacy refers to the belief that straight white hair is the norm or default and anything not like the default is unusual or not acceptable. 

Edit: A previous version of this post incorrectly listed the school as a charter school. The school is a public school operated by Dekalb County schools.


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