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The politics of hair (again): school bans white girl with braids

My kinky locs. Should I be fired for this hairstyle or refused service in a salon?

Or, as in this U.K. case, must a schoolgirl remove cornrows because she is white? Laugh at the U.K., but this kind of ignorant crap happens in the U.S. all the time, as you will see below. (Guardian):

Olivia Acton, 13, had her hair braided while on holiday in Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands, but she was turned away from classes in February because her new look broke her school’s code. Her parents are angry that the headteacher, Allison Crompton, allowed two other pupils, with African-Caribbean heritage, to attend school wearing their hair in braids because of their cultural and ethnic background.

Olivia’s father, Michael Acton, said: “Olivia asked why and [the headteacher] replied ‘it’s not your culture‘. Olivia said to her that that was racist. The [school] policy only bans ‘extreme’ haircuts. How can she discriminate between a white person [with] a haircut like that and a black person? If it’s extreme for one, it’s extreme for another.”

Ms Crompton said: “We don’t allow any extreme hairstyles at the school. We are a high-achieving school with high standards. We don’t allow any street culture into school. If we didn’t allow some leeway for their cultural and ethnic background I think it would probably be discriminatory.”

The Actons’ MP, Jim Dobbin, said he was trying to break the deadlock by asking the governing body to mediate. “I think the parents and Olivia have a genuine complaint.” The school said Olivia could return but only if she stayed on her own in the learning support unit. Her father insisted he would take the case to court. “If it has to go to court for racial discrimination that’s what we will do.”

Councillor Colin Lambert, Rochdale’s education spokesman, said: “The school should concentrate on what goes into the students’ heads not what is on their heads.”

What kind of ass-hat thinking is going on here? Do they have a list of what is considered extreme — are they talking about anything outside of the Western “norm”? As long as your hair is clean and groomed, what on earth does this have anything to do with learning?

As I said, there’s plenty of this kind of thinking going on right here at home. I’m not even trying to present a cultural argument on this topic; it’s simple common sense. Why does it matter what hairstyle you wear unless it gets in the way of you being able to do the job? How are locs an impediment any more than magenta hair, a long ponytail or a mohawk ‘do? Take a look at these home-grown stories of discrimination.

* Dreadlocks don’t cut it at St. Louis bar. The Cheshire Inn denied entry of two men into the bar because of their dreadlocs. Jack Lueders, president of the corporation that operates the Cheshire Inn said:

You can’t wash that hair, and it stinks, and we’re a crowded bar, and we don’t want stinky people in the bar,” he said, explaining the policy. “If you look nice and you’re obviously clean, nobody’s going to go up and smell your hair.”

Good god. What on earth is this man talking about? I wash my hair every day during the summer (every other day in the winter — I have very dry, brittle hair). The ostensible reason for this policy is that it was to keep out a homeless man that had dirty dreads. Right. Two men dressed to attend a wedding = unwashed homeless man.

* Judge Upholds Public School Ban on Cornrows. U.S. District Court Judge Scott O. Wright in Kansas City, Missouri upheld a long-standing rule imposed by Boonville High School Coach Richard Smith that prohibits basketball players from wearing braided cornrows during games or practice. No reason is given in the story as to why this particular hairstyle is banned; only that the judge ruled citing federal appeals courts in general have deferred to the authority of the public schools.

* Dreadlock Lockout: The Dallas Police Department is firing employees based on their hairstyles. Two dozen police officers were stripped of their duties last spring when the Dallas Police Department decided to “crackdown” on dreadlock and other unconventional hairstyles. As the author of the opinion piece, Gjared Robinson, says:

The department claims that officers must look authoritative and assume a role of power. I don’t know about most people, but if I were pulled over by an officer, the badge he wears on his chest is all I need to see to know they have the power to arrest and charge me.

* Hair Cuttery Accused of Racial Discrimination. Monica Clark of Capitol Heights and Leslie Mercer of Reston claim in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, that they were mistreated because of their race repeatedly at several Hair Cuttery locations in the Washington area. In visits to separate stores, they tried to charge them $10 more for services because of their race, or were denied service.

When Clark complained, she said, the stylist refused to serve her. After having her hair done by another stylist, Clark said, she complained to a store manager. She alleges that the manager told her that “her kind of hair” was difficult to blow dry. Mercer, the second plaintiff, said that in August she went to a Hair Cuttery in Reston and requested a roller set. She alleges that she was denied service and was told that her “type of hair [was] too difficult to do.”

The bottom line is that many black people are turning away from the chemical processes used to straighten kinky hair. Permanent chemical treatments, like perms, texturizers, alter the hair from its natural state. Sadly, the majority of black women don’t even know what the texture of their hair actually is, because they have undergone the lye (and the lie) from the time they were young — when they were told that kinky hair = bad hair. If they didn’t get that relaxer as a young child, then they underwent the torture of the hot comb.

I was old enough to experience the “pleasure” of the thermal hot comb — you rested it over the gas flame of the stove to heat it up. Then the grease was carefully applied to your hair and that comb sizzled through the kinks till it was bone straight, hissing as you prayed the comb didn’t touch your scalp — inevitably you got scalp burns because the “stylist” f*cked up. [By the way, the “stylist” for most folks was usually a relative, but in my case, everyone in my family had straight hair, so my mom had to take me to a salon till she figured out what to do.]

Once the chemical relaxer came into vogue it was the same problem with a different twist, it became a watch-the-clock endeavor to see how long you could leave the vile-smelling chemicals on to achieve maximum straightness before your scalp started to peel, burn and get open sores. Anything for that damn straight hair.

Why would anyone do this? It can’t be because it’s fun or easy to maintain. Black women who wear their hair in straight styles obsess about it all the time. Don’t let it get wet, humid or exercise too h
ard because if you do, it will “go back” at the least opportune moment. At this point and time, the problem is two-fold:

1) an internalized self-loathing passed down through the generations of being told your natural hair is a “problem” and “fixing” it by using such extreme measures is a means to assimilate into the dominant culture (boy, that’s working real well, considering the above stories, huh?); and

2) the dominant culture still has bigoted ideas about blacks and kinky hair that can profoundly affect the employment of, and treatment of people. This of course, means #1 will continue to occur.

If you want to read more about the serious politics of hair, click over to an earlier post of mine on Pam’s House Blend, and check out more links here. If you want a laugh, click over to my Hair Journey, a visual chronicle of learning to love my natural hair.

And by the way, you can still buy those thermal hot combs. I saw one online for $9.50. Some poor child is still getting fried out there.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding