School dress codes aren’t just sexist — they’re often racist, too.
For many, autumn signifies an opportunity to cherish the return of Starbucks’ seasonal beverages, sweater weather and, of course, school. While some students are reluctant to re-enter their school’s hallways, the new year is nothing if not an opportunity for self-discovery. Yet the privilege of fully being oneself is harder for students with whom schools take issue — specifically black students, who are often disproportionately affected by dress code sanctions.
Hair in the black community is an intimate and touchy subject. It’s not that our hair is more “important” or “special” than anyone else’s, but that black hair is subject to constant critique and restrictions. People feel the need to meddle with black hair, whether by using their hands or their opinions. While non-black and/or non-POCs’ hairstyles are considered a relatively unremarkable part of their existence, black people’s hairstyles are consistently referred to as distracting or an affront to some rules of conduct. This valued part of black culture is so often viewed by wider society as a disturbance.
This phenomenon is made clear by the language administrations use when they talk about black hair, such as “sick,” “inappropriate,” and “not groomed.” These kinds of pointed descriptions spell out the racism and cultural insensitivity inflicted on black students, especially black girls, in school. And beyond language, these perceptions impede black girls’ education and sense of self. Girls have been sent home from school, denied entry into exams, given detention, banned, and threatened with suspension because of their hair. Despite the fact that hair has no influence over one’s academic potential, this school felt that the braids two of their students wore didn’t “represent the school” and ordered them to remove their braids.
But perhaps the more insidious part of this problem is that while it’s grossly incorrect to sanction someone’s hair based on arbitrary, westernized standards, it’s not entirely incorrect to refer to black hair as a “distraction.” When I was in third grade, I was a devout follower of both Allen Iverson and Li’l Bow Wow and wanted cornrows more than anything else. I knew I couldn’t get them, though, because my school administrators would’ve considered that style “distracting.” Not distracting to me, of course, but to everyone around me. Yet people already found my hair distracting — they would play with it, pull it, put pencils in it, extend it past its natural curl and watch it attentively snap back to my scalp. When I started middle school, I finally got cornrows anyway and found that these new braids distracted plenty of my peers, too — they played with my ends and ran their fingers through the grooves on my scalp. My brother reported experiencing the same thing: people felt compelled to fiddle with his braids anytime they sat behind him.
Of course, when white girls in my elementary school class came back from Mexico with their hair in cornrows, their hair wasn’t considered distracting. This notion of black hair as a “distraction,” therefore, seems intimately tied to our cultural notions of race and consent. We shouldn’t police how black people wear their hair, but rather the way white palms consistently reach for a nonconsensual feel every time their black peers’ hair changes even slightly. Instead of broadening school dress codes or expanding administration’s notions of what “groomed” hair can be, schools decide to draw a line in the sand in a way that isolates and exiles black girls. It’s a problem that exists in the margins of the greater argument over more generally sexist dress codes, in which the comfort and educational access of male students is prioritized over the pervasive sexualization of female students those very same males perpetuate.
Hair has never been “just hair” to black people. Despite the flippancy with which non-black people interact with it, black hair is also certainly not “just hair” to them either, or they wouldn’t consistently impose sanctions on it. When young black women’s hair is policed, part of their self-expression and self-worth is handcuffed. Schools need to discard antiquated standards of dress and beauty. It’s not up to school to make sure girls adjust their hair so white students can focus in class, but it is up to them to deal with those who can’t remain engaged because of someone else’s body.
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