21st Century Black Codes in K-12 School Policies Related to Black Hair
by Tiffany A. Flowers & Erin L. Berry - September 19, 2017
This commentary examines contemporary school policies restricting the hairstyles of Black children as echoes of the 19th century Black Codes in the American south.
Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. Youre caged in. Your hair rules you. You didnt go running with Curt today because you dont want to sweat out this straightness. Youre always battling to make your hair do what it wasnt meant to do.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
The above quote by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illustrates a well-known reality for the majority of African American women. Before the natural hair movement of both the seventies and new millennium, many African American women and men invested in expensive and sometimes dangerous materials to straighten their hair. The idea behind this investment was to ensure economic vitality in a mainstream world that rejects the idea that natural Black hair is professional. Therefore, the politics, health, and ability to advance economically has always been tied to whether African American women straighten their hair. These conversations have been happening all over the African American community for decades. However, we are currently seeing a re-emergence of these issues within schools.
In the past five years, there have been many incidents related to Black hair and issues of diversity, which permeate social media. The incidents have included an African American girl having her braid cut off by a teacher as well as Black high school students being told that they cannot adorn their hair with head wraps during Black History Month (Isama, 2016; Young, 2016). Various African American high school students in honors classes are kept from going to prom, graduation, recitals, and academic events due to hairstyles. Additionally, there have been suspensions and even expulsions proposed over hair policies at school for both boys and girls. As teachers and educators, we must begin to question both how and why these incidents continue to persist within local school policies.
Various explanations proposed for these incidents include the rise in private charter schools and the lack of diversity training of school personnel. Additionally, the validity of diversity as an issue in schools is still debated, even 3040 years after the initial adoption of state to state diversity policies and despite the work of several scholars urging the necessity for culturally responsive teaching throughout the K-12 environment (Flowers, 2003; hooks, 1994). However, charter schools and the lack of diversity training do not address the underlying root of these issues and even more so, why African American students are caught in the crosshairs of policy and their right to express what is naturally and culturally theirs. Essentially, there are special codes being written within school policies related to Black hair as a distraction, and an inappropriate one at that. The most disconcerting point is that these school codes declare that, in order to solve this distraction, African Americans unsightly hair should be disguised with a weave or even a wig. Some of the school codes even include details on cornrows, braids, kinky twists, Senegalese twists, afros, flat twists, kinks, locks, fro-hawks, Zulu knots, pixies, afro puffs, and high hair as inappropriate. Although there may be other students impacted by these policies, these policies are clearly targeted at a single population of African American students. These policies assert that an unattainable, uniform standard of appearance is the only way to properly wear hair, and stand in stark contrast to the natural hair growth for African American people. Further, it continues to advance the narrative of post-colonialism that privileges European (Read: white) physical and social features over African (African American) features (hooks, 1994; Isama, 2016). These policies can be viewed as discriminatory since they are crafted to establish and classify otherness. In fact, it is very difficult to distinguish these schools codes from the Black codes of the segregated south. As we seek to create more inclusive classrooms through teacher training and development, it is important to examine why educators within the 21st century are reigniting the Black codes from the segregated south within schools and targeting children.
Black Codes in the 21st Century
In every diversity course across the U.S., it is imperative teacher educators acknowledge Americas history as a diverse one. More specifically, it is critical that they grasp the real experiences of slavery and segregation, in which African Americans were restricted from all civil liberties and from practicing basic freedoms afforded to every tax-paying American, as well as the post-Civil War Reconstruction era that attempted to restructure American society. Additionally, African Americans were subjected to skin color laws known as Black Codes, which limited voting rights, land ownership, and education opportunities (Lake, 2003). The laws helped to keep African Americans depressed economically, educationally, and civically while keeping individuals segregated within their own communities. The codes diminished opportunities and created a negative and dangerous atmosphere that promoted violent discrimination against Black people, and the Codes were eliminated in 1868. Unfortunately however, the legacy of the Black Codes persists within schools in the U.S., and scholars from various sub-fields within education continue to explore it. These 21st century Black Codes are resurfacing in schools under the guise of controlling natural Black hair within a learning environment (Love, 2017). The question every teacher should ask is: when did natural Black hair become its own issue?
WHY DISCUSSIONS OF BLACK HAIR MATTER
For the past decade, the majority of African American women have been focusing on their health as well as the health of their children. They have stopped using hair relaxers, wigs, and weaves. This process of transformation that many Black women have stopped includes limiting exposure to harsh chemicals that may cause health problems. What continues to be a socially significant part of this move from chemically-treated hair to ones own natural tresses is also located in a Black Code that counters the post-colonial ideal of white beauty and white beauty narratives (Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2003). Therefore, it is odd that any educator would pose this as a solution to wearing natural Black hair.
Additionally, the optics of seeing a child in early childhood with a wig or weaved adult hair looks more a like clown show than a solution to wearing natural hair. That is why the issue should not be Black hair. The issue should be the adults who are so appalled by Black hair that they would enforce a policy which encourages a child to wear someone elses hair like a helmet to appear normal to their eyes. This is by definition why we have diversity courses and why adults who work with children need consistent diversity training. Educators need to learn to accept that children of different races, ethnicities, and cultures have different skin, hair, eye shapes, lips, cheeks, and so forth. African American children are not mere vessels who should conform to harsh cultural and physical changes in order to appear less noticeable. Therefore, as we teach diversity courses, it is imperative to ensure that we have conversations about the idea of not seeing race, which is virtually impossible for a sighted person. The concept is also a ridiculous escape mechanism to avoid discussing the feelings that may surface later regarding people of another race. This is why discussing 21st century Black Codes is so important.
Teacher educators spend a considerable amount of time with future teachers and are charged with shaping, molding, and preparing students for the world outside of the classroom. This role of teacher brings with it symbolic power. Thus, this symbolic power has the potential to manifest in ways that either help or hurt students. Because of this, teacher educators are also confronted with additional responsibilities that require them to take steps where they not only embrace inclusive pedagogical practices, but also engage in intentional social justice practices that challenge the hegemonic policies threatening the civil liberties of Black and brown children. To that end, it is time to move toward dismantling discriminatory policies and incorporating issues related to civil rights and civil liberties into teacher and school administrator training.
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