Black Is Beautiful, But Hair Is Still Political

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In the spring of 2014, the Army banned black women soldiers from wearing natural hairstyles like cornrows, even though those easy-care looks meant that some women could give up the scalp-damaging chemical relaxers used to straighten tightly curled African American hair. The Army endured weeks of withering abuse and a congressional intervention before the service finally ditched the policy. Today, the Army and other branches spell out precise haircare parameters that permit natural styles that do not run afoul of grooming regulations.

The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb, apparently missed this heads-up on the absurdity of forcing African Americans to conform to white haircare grooming standards. African American students make up 20 percent of the nearly 1,500 students at the K–12 school and outperform their peers in the region. But as the furor over the school’s discriminatory hair policies simmers, school officials give every indication that while they have embraced diversity in their admissions criteria, they are clueless—or worse—when it comes to inclusion.

As The American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen has reported, African American twin sisters who wear braids ran afoul of the charter school’s hair and dress code policy that included a prohibition against “distracting” hairstyles. White students who sported hairstyles that violated the policy were not punished. However, black students were forced out of athletic and extracurricular activities and received detentions or suspensions.

Some African Americans are not enthusiastic about weaves, cornrows, braids, twists, locks, or the return of the righteous afro either. In her 1990 essay, “Is Your Hair Still Political?” writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde explained how she nearly missed out on a Caribbean vacation because a black immigration officer in the British Virgin Islands took issue with her locks.

The obsession with African American hair is deeply engrained in the American psyche. The reason, not surprisingly, dates to slavery, as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has noted in his book Slavery and Social Death: “Hair type rapidly became the real symbolic badge of slavery, although like many powerful symbols, it was disguised, in this case by the linguistic device of using the term ‘black,’ which nominally threw the emphasis to color. No one who has grown up in a multiracial society, however, is unaware of the fact that hair difference is what carries the real symbolic potency.”

Young people have always unnerved their elders by departing from the previous generation’s grooming standards. But while African Americans and other minority groups may work and learn side by side with whites, proximity does not necessarily produce acceptance or introspection on either side. For many whites, natural hairstyles like those worn by the Malden teenagers signify not only rebellion but, more significantly, a wholesale rejection of white American values and norms. Even prominent, successful women like former First Lady Michelle Obama are not immune. A Georgia teacher was later fired for posting on Facebook about the departing first lady, “This poor gorilla … She needs to focus on getting a total make-over (especially the hair), instead of planning vacations!” 

Schools like Mystic Valley that insist on selective enforcement of hair and dress codes (and then compound the problem by attempting to justify the unjustifiable) illustrate the perils of diversity without inclusion. Researchers at Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity have found that “implicit bias” in whites’ perceptions of how black students behave has contributed to skyrocketing suspension rates for minor infractions like dress and hair code violations. They defined implicit bias as “the mental process that causes us to have negative feelings and attitudes about people based on characteristics like race, ethnicity, age and appearance. Because this cognitive process functions in our unconscious mind, we are typically not consciously aware of the negative racial biases that we develop over the course of our lifetime.”

At first glance, the much-ado-about-hairstyles appears frivolous and not at all political, but hair bias trails African American women from school to the workplace, where conformity is an economic imperative. A 2016 Perception Institute survey of black and white women found that while the majority of black and white respondents exhibited bias toward natural hair, white women “showed explicit bias” toward women who wear natural hairstyles, while one in five black women “feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work—twice as many as white women.”

Black hair does not have to be political. Several months passed before then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel finally revoked the Army’s discriminatory policy. “Each service reviewed its hairstyle policies to ensure standards are fair and respectful while also meeting military requirements,” Hagel said in a letter to Congress. “These reviews were informed by a panel of military personnel of mixed demographics reflective of our diverse force.” As school officials continue to defend their actions, it’s debatable whether Mystic Valley Charter School will be able to measure up and recognize where they are falling short. According to Massachusetts Department of Education 2016–2017 data, only one of its nearly 160 full-time teachers is African American.

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