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Affirming Beauty

There’s been a whole lot of talk about hair over the last week or so – more specifically African American hair. First there was the Sheryl Underwood statement that shocked and offended quite a few folks. Then we go somewhat past/through that, only to finish the week out with a local school reported to have sent 7 year old Tiana Parker home, not for bad behavior, not for any type of contagious or communicable disease, nor for a school emergency, but because of the way her hair was styled. I always seem to have a hope when I read these types of stories that it just couldn’t be true. Approximately 3 months ago, an Ohio school decided to ban Afro Puffs and braids/twists, and they have since apologized and an apology was in order along with the removal of the ban. And now it happens again with young Tiana.

I was pretty pissed off about the entire situation, hurt that a child was hurt in this way; and then I stumbled upon the most beautiful response to date, designed by Dr. Yaba Blay with contributions from a host of African American women with Locs and encouraging messages for Tiana Parker. Here it is.

There are many responses that are needed. Does pressure need to be put on the Debra Brown Community School administration? Absolutely. Should there be an outcry of injustice, discrimination and misuse of the establishing of policies? Most definitely!

Some would argue that the school was within their right because after all they did state in their policy that: “Hairstyles such as Dreadlocks, Afros or Mohawks and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” To say that Tiana’s dad, Mr. Parker should have known better and just submit himself and his daughter to the rules, is to miss a more serious offense –  that this should never have been a policy in the first place, in that it is an objection to the type and texture of African American hair – hair that grows differently than straight hair, is curly and tightly coiled without any chemical alterations, and therefore by default must be styled differently.

The style of an Afro and/or Dreadlocks are not “faddish” by any stretch of anyone’s historical awareness or imagination. What is the deal with African American hair and the interest and fascination? Why is it that I, even as an adult, whether in institutions of higher learning or interacting with some straight haired folks in other settings, can run into folks who feel the need to “touch” my hair and be somewhat offended and put off by my response of no?

Historically speaking, many Black folks began a process of straightening our hair in order to fit in and be accepted by a dominant, and racist society. Today, several African Americans still straighten their hair – chemically, flat ironed, etc – for most that I know who still straighten their tresses, it is not at all about acceptance, it is just what is normative for how we were raised or because of personal preference for a straight look. I don’t knock them, I used to have my hair chemically relaxed too. As a teenager I waited in anticipation for getting old enough for my parents to allow me to “relax” my hair. So, I get it. We could talk about these types of surface aspects forever, but unless the underlying issues are addressed, such as why all this even matters in the first place and why policing hair styles/textures is wrong. As I see it the following are a few reasons actions such as those of DBCS and others matters.

It is an important issue because it is about identity, the partiality that is shown regarding the value of some and not others, and the shaping of young minds regarding images of self and love of self. Children will receive messages of inferiority throughout life, but to receive this message from one’s own race/culture of people is a huge slap in the face – no matter what the motivation for the policies.
The reason the decisions of the school are viewed as wrong is because it denies an entire cultural group the privilege of celebrating our culture; the policy tears down rather than builds up – doing harm instead of good; and it reinforces the message of conformity and the need to suppress our true selves. It encourages assimilation and suppression of our cultural markers of identity – elevating one way of being human above another; it is the politics of acceptability all over again.

Perhaps it is embedded in our psyche so deeply and for so long that it is almost impossible for some to unlearn it or even realize that something is wrong and of need of being unlearned. Who knows??? But, Tiana and others like her have a plethora of people in their corner, encouraging and holding them up.

Who Cares?

Photo from chron.com

Two words have been on my mind for the last couple of weeks – “Trayvon Martin.” I have turned the revealed details over in my head and heart and respond with an appropriate feeling of anger at the apparent injustice of it all. I did not know Trayvon and I do not know his family, causing some to ask why I care. The only response I can muster up to such wondering is “why don’t YOU care?”

I have deeply spiritual and human reasons for caring. My heart aches as I wonder what it might have been like for Trayvon to journey from the store to his dad’s home only to have the entirety of his being filled with fear as he peered down the barrel of George Zimmeran’s gun, never anticipating that his trip to the store might be the last trip, the last pack of Skittles, the last bottle of iced tea.

In the Martin, Zimmerman case, it is difficult for me to believe that the “Stand your ground law” in Florida is designed for people like Zimmerman – based on the 911 calls, Zimmeran was following Martin even though instructed not to do so. Zimmerman is about 100lbs heavier than Martin was. Zimmerman was armed and Martin was not. The mere reality that Zimmerman followed this teen because, according to his perceptions, he looked suspicious is cause for the law being in place for people like Martin – who really seems to be the one whose life was in danger and threatened? And even if Zimmerman was in danger (which I doubt), did he need to shoot to kill?

Assumptions regarding racial motivation on the part of Zimmerman (whether false or true) serve as a reminder of the yet existent pain of racial inequality in the US. Being Black in America still means encountering individuals who will view your very existence as a threat and see your skin pigmentation and way of being as “suspicious.” In many cases “looking suspicious” only means I look different than you, have different mannerisms, hair texture, and wardrobe.

Social stereotypes still exist – can’t even where your hooded sweatshirt when it’s raining, especially if you are an African American male. And rather than focus on the injustices surrounding Trayvon and other “Trayvons” of society, we still have individuals like popular TV personality Geraldo Rivera spouting nonsense that suggests that Trayvon’s death was as much his own fault because he was wearing a hoodie. But as Eugene Cho says

Hoodies don’t kill just as short skirts don’t rape. Focus on the injustice and not the wardrobe.

The stark reality is that even without the hoodie, Trayvon still lived in his brown skin.

I love my lighter brothers and sisters – sincerely, but the subtle hints that we are overreacting and simply reading into things when we insist that racism and racial profiling are the real experiences of the African American race is an insult that only causes the societal realities to continue. We are not yet a post-racial society as some would suggest, therefore more work is yet to be done.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s quest for “Strength to Love” reminds me to continue to love others even through the experience of anger and outrage – and this love is to be for all.


The question in all of this is will we care enough to be disturbed to the point where inaction is nearly impossible?