This week, Terrance Parker pulled his daughter, Tiana, out of Tulsa’s Deborah Brown Community School after being hounded by school officials about her “unpresentable” and “distracting” hair. The problematic distraction? Dreadlocks, accented with an adorable bow.
When 7-year-old Tiana sobbed to a news reporter, “They didn’t like my dreads,” she identified the key issue underlying the policy that resulted in her removal from school: Tiana’s school not only does not like, it does not understand, her hair. According to the policy at Deborah Brown, "Hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks and other faddish styles are unacceptable." School policies like this one are culturally insensitive and deliver dangerous messages to the children they marginalize.
Dreadlocks and afros—unlike neon hair color and other fads—are not simply hairstyles; they are texture-dependent. While people can manipulate their hair texture into these looks, at baseline they are common ways for people with tightly coiled hair texture to grow and maintain their hair. Such hair does not naturally lie down or smooth out—it must be forced to do so. To single out the natural hair texture of a whole group of people as “distracting” is to communicate, “You are not acceptable the way you are. You must change your appearance.” A sentiment with a history older than this nation.
This message is what brought Tiana, a straight-A student, to tears. It undermines the safe, welcoming climate each school should strive to maintain—and the promotion of understanding the culturally diverse world we live in. Schools should be at the forefront of teaching that understanding, and it starts with leadership.
If school administrators are serious about ensuring safe, inclusive environments and advocating for all students in their schools, cultural awareness must be part of policy making. One-size-fits-all policies cannot work in our increasingly diverse schools.
Bell is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.