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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.

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It’s Not About the Hoodies!

Photo Credit - Flickr_bMethe

My first post on this topic was filled with so much pain and emotion that my thoughts were incohesive, and I believe that is ok. Though my heart is still broken, hopefully this one will be clearer.

This past Sunday many churches and groups across the nation held what they referred to as “Hoodie Sunday.” Individuals stood in solidarity with Trayvon Martin’s family through this action. I commend churches and others for supporting the family in such record numbers and celebrate it as a great thing. But if we stop at making it about hoodies and skittles we fail!

It’s trendy to get in on this by wearing a hoodie, and make claims to care (and perhaps all involved actually do); but what will we do after this “big” case? People of color are being profiled, targeted, discriminated against and even slaughtered every day. These are individuals who will never make front page of a paper, be a blog post, cnn video or protest rally. And the silence prior to Trayvon has been somewhat deafening. And yet, rather than be too cynical I consider that maybe this situation is what we need to put a little fire under us and move us to a place of saying enough is enough. Let’s hope so. Here are some observations to consider that flow from the current situation at hand.

Unanswered Questions
There are questions in this tragedy that remain unanswered. Did Trayvon confront Zimmerman (the 911 tapes indicate that Zimmerman followed Martin)? Did Zimmerman feel threatened by Martin? Why did Zimmerman deem it necessary to shoot and even more importantly, why did he deem it necessary to shoot to kill? Why have the Sanford police department delayed arrest for a month? There is much that we don’t know….
What we do know is that Trayvon Martin is dead and his family and loved ones are experiencing intense grief. We also  know that death did not have to be outcome. We know that George Zimmerman is eleven years older than Martin was and weighed approximately 100 pounds more, and pursued Martin when instructed not to. The 17 year olds death was  unnecessary and avoidable – still it happened.
We know that the Sanford police department made certain that Martin’s system was checked for drugs and alcohol (even though he was the one dead), and failed to do the same with Zimmerman. Seems absurd to me!
Systemic Racism
As an African American woman I am intimately acquainted with racism. It is not an individual challenge, it is systemic. There are structures and power dynamics that work against people of color (not solely African American) in this nation called the US. And the truth is that systemic racism is more difficult to eliminate. People do not give up power easily. For those who make people of color feel as though we are somehow imagining that racism still exists, the disproportionate prison rates, reactions from dominant cultural groups when race is mentioned, and even educational institutions provide ample evidence that we are not naive and overreacting. It matters not whether individually we are the ones who put the structures in place, what matters is that we take responsibility for eradication of systems and structure that are oppressive to people groups.
Cultural Callousness
I hate that Trayvon Martin, an innocent teen is dead! And I wonder if perhaps this is one of the incidents that can be used to move society from a place of apathy and cultural callousness to a place of cultural sensitivity. Trayvon is not the first African American teen to be the recipient of violence. This type of thing happens all the time and we fail to care deeply enough to act and say enough is enough or even more importantly to engage in preventative measures. It’s time to change!
Societal Biases
It matters not how spiritual or not spiritual one is, all cultural groups have their biases, preferences and affinities. This is normal, natural. The trouble arises when we move beyond biases to a place of disregard and disdain for those who differ from us. Biases are not license for hatred, discrimination and violence. I do not often take things personal, however in the middle of the Trayvon case and all of the emotional pain it causes, I read an article and tweet reactions to the popular Hunger Games and admittedly it sent me over the edge. The overt racist comments by not just one, but many nearly took me by surprise. Perhaps this is because most racist individuals I have encountered are not as blatant.
I then read of another hate crime towards an Iraqi woman and became even more baffled by the audaciousness of any cultural or racial group to see themselves as somehow greater than another. We’re better than this aren’t we? In the depths of my being I believe that EVERY individuals is precious and valuable because of our Creator!
Additionally, there are those who minimize the realities of racism and biases as though we are somehow imagining these things. To deny a person their right to their stories is to insult their equality as unique creations of God. To deny a person’s story is to see them as liars, disrespect them, invalidate their experiences and further exasperate the issues of inequality.We must deny no one the right to have a story!
So, like I said, it’s really not just about hoodies, it goes much deeper than that. And the question remains, what are WE going to do about it from this day forward?  ” Now we must go from wearing hoodies to transforming the hood as we fight for justice! – Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, III