Life’s Matters: Strands of Controversy
In my previous column, I discussed hair types, our common humanity, and the futility of attempting to compartmentalize the black hair experience. Here, I explore the stereotypes and the dangers of conformity. When hair gets tangled in biases and prejudices, the results are racism, discrimination, marginalization, and oppression. This is demonstrated by narrow interpretations of policies and practices and overt acts of ostracizing.
Present-day, white-dominated culture stresses conformity, particularly when it comes to behavior, dress, and speech of minority people. Blacks and other minorities must perform as whites command while blending in and becoming as invisible as possible. Blending in does not solve the problem that many white people see minorities as inferior and threatening. Regardless of hair type, color, or style, the person’s race remains the same. Conformity does not eradicate biases, prejudice, racism, and hatred. Black people must conform to narrow, enigmatic, and shifting interpretations of what white people deem to be acceptable. We are to act white and remember we are not.
White people expect black women and men to wear their hair in socially appropriate styles while never forgetting their place as black people, as a marginalized people, as a stigmatized people, as undesirable people. However, through cultural appropriation, white people freely wear the styles that black people are punished for wearing.
Like other forms of art, hair can be controversial, though not intended to be so. Most black people do not set out to antagonize white people using their hair as a platform, although some certainly do. Their intention is to celebrate their life as a human being, to demonstrate to the world who they are, and to take pride in their crowning glory. There are stereotypical “black” hairstyles and “white” hairstyles based on one’s skin color and hair type. If white people sense that black hair styles are too attractive or too expressive or too avant-garde, they issue mandates. They use excuses that the styles are distracting or dirty. One white school administrator said the hairstyles are obviously expensive and thereby subjugate the policy of equality the school is trying to cultivate. These are flimsy excuses designed to mask biases and profiling.
White people are well aware of the impact hair has on identity. By writing dress codes and policies governing hair, white people continue to restrain black people from self-expression. Black people endure criticism and ridicule of their hair disproportionately to white people and other races in the media, from coworkers, employers, school administrators, and sports authorities. Ostracizing is dehumanizing and demoralizing. White people know this. The humiliating experiences of being sent home or fired because one’s hair is judged unacceptable translates to meaning the person is unacceptable. When black hair styles are mandated, white people send the message that imagination, creativity, and self-expression are not okay.
Weaves, braids, cornrows, and dreadlocks are deemed inappropriate in work and school settings, yet white models are paid handsomely to wear those same hairstyles. When hair is used to impede education and jobs, the message of racism is very clear: 1. You are inferior; 2. You are unacceptable; 3. You cannot be trusted to govern yourself, so you must be told how to wear your hair; and 4. You are unworthy of respect and dignity.
Hairstyles have been cited as reasons to terminate employment because they did not meet the company’s dress code. In October 2017, the manager of a Banana Republic store manager told nineteen-year-old Destiny Thompkins her hairstyle was “too urban and unkempt” for the company’s image. He said that if she did not remove her braids, he could not schedule her for any shifts. The company fired him for discrimination and issued a statement about its diversity policy. Kudos to Banana Republic.
In 2018, school teachers and administrators sent children home because of their hair styles. Children who are forbidden to wear the hairstyles of their culture are sent the message that their culture is inferior and they are to conform to the rules of white society. Some children are barred from school until their hair meets the white dress codes and policies. Others are expelled and told to never return. In August 2018, eleven-year-old Faith Fennidy was sent home from school because her hairstyle violated the school’s rules and she was told to not return. The school denied that she was suspended or expelled. White administrators drafted the school’s policy about wigs, hair pieces, and extensions because they said they considered such styles as fads and inappropriate. Faith’s brother posted her ejection from school on social media and her parents retained an attorney. The school later asked her to return.
Even boys were affected. Spring 2018, a fourteen-year-old boy was called into the administrator’s office because his hairstyle was “distracting.” His mother shared his story on social media prompting involvement by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The school district said it plans to update its twenty-six-year-old dress code. In August 2018, six-year-old first-grader C. J. Stanley was turned away from school when he showed up the first day wearing dreadlocks. In Fresno, California, in 2018, a school principal called a fourteen-year-old black student into the office because teachers deemed his haircut as distracting. His hair was shaved along the sides with a pattern etched into the hair, without controversial sayings or symbols, and quite stylish and common in black circles.
Hair discrimination exists in sports as well. In December 2018, high schooler Andrew Johnson won his 120-pound wresting match after a white official gave him the ultimatum to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match. The referee did not allow Johnson to cover his hair. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) said it was setting up an investigation and issuing a recommendation that the referee could not be assigned to future events until they more thoroughly reviewed the incident.
White people are fascinated by black hair. They want to touch it. They’re curious and want to know how black hair differs from their own. But some do not preface their curiosity by expressing interest. They simply think it is acceptable and permissible to invade the personal space of black people. White strangers reach up and touch the hair of black people without asking permission. The answer to such rudeness and invasion is, “No.” Violating someone’s personal space is never okay. It is the presumption of white privilege—white people believe they have a right to do whatever they want to whoever they choose, and people of color need to remember their place and that such privilege is not extended to them.
Despite our common humanity, “hairism” has its roots in racism, bigotry, discrimination, marginalization, and oppression along with skin color. Hair discrimination is alive and well. Hairism is used to control black people. We must keep the dialogue going about this pervasive emotional assault on black people. We must stand up to employers and school administrators and sports authorities who offer feeble excuses for biased and prejudicial dress codes and policies. We must let young people know their identity and its expression are welcome. Often, we must hold the conversations in the media, social media, and courtrooms. So be it.
Billie Wade is a gregarious introvert whose primary interests are writing, lifelong learning, personal development, and how we all are affected by life’s vagaries. Issues facing black people, women, the LGBTQ community, and aging adults are of particular concern to her. She enjoys open-hearted dialogue with diverse people. She is experienced in human resources employee services administration, chemical dependency counseling, and magazine publishing editorial assistant. The opinions expressed here are her own.