More Than Just Hair

Amy-Ruth Gyang, Writer

Senior Danielle Owusu at All Saints Academy woke up before her alarm, excited for the start of a new school year. Instead of spending time doing her usual morning routine, she chose to spend it making sure her hair was in the perfect hairstyle, a part in the middle with two afro pigtails, that she thought followed her school dress code.

“New school, new hairstyle,” she said to herself as she grabbed her backpack and climbed into the car. When she arrived on campus, classmates told her that her hair “didn’t follow the dress code.” That moment would stick with Owusu each time she made the decision to wear her hair natural.

While Owusu didn’t experience this at Trinity, for some Black students who wear their hair natural, experiences such as these aren’t uncommon. According to a 2021 Crown Research Study for Girls where 1000 girls (500 black and 500 white) were surveyed, 66% of Black girls in majority-white schools reported experiencing hair discrimination.

The dress codes that are supposed to protect their hair often do the opposite; they uphold the anti-black hair sentiments that have existed for centuries. However, if school dress codes, rather than being made for one group of students, represented the entire student body, then the question of whether Black hair fits into the dress code would no longer have to be an issue.

For the past decade, media outlets have covered hundreds of stories of black students being expelled, suspended, or banned from partaking in school activities for wearing ‘Black hairstyles’. Typical ‘Black hairstyles’ include weaves (artificial or natural hair sewed or bonded into the hair), natural afro textured hair and extensions.

Most dress codes try to adhere to a set list of rules that all students must follow, yet in recent years there has been greater emphasis on the regulation of Black hair. When Black hair is discriminated against in a dress code, the lack of perspective and stereotypes typically play a large role, especially when black people are not “sitting at the table.”

At Trinity, the dress code states that “unnatural color or distracting hair styles” are prohibited. However, the term ‘distracting’ is highly subjective and is largely up for personal interpretation.

If schools like Trinity had greater inclusion of students of color then teachers and administrators would be more circumspect to the editing and creation of dress codes, thereby removing vague words like ‘distracting.’

The discussion over Black hair has not been limited to schools, but has sparked debates all around the world due to its textures and preferred style. However, it wasn’t always this way.

In Ancient Africans tribes, Black hair was celebrated and used to symbolize one’s social standing, tribe, spirituality and even fertility. The Nigerian Yoruba tribe described it as ‘ade dudu ori,’ ‘the black crown of the head.’ Tribes developed a wide range of hairstyles, including bantu knots, dreadlocks, braids and beads, and equally women and men would spend time styling each other’s hair.

Hundreds of years later, the beginnings of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade would warrant a shift in the portrayal of Black hair in society. Europeans who arrived on African coasts frequently compared Black hair to animals and labeled it as ‘wooly,’ not only to highlight their Eurocentric qualities but also to convince Africans that they were not equal. Slave masters established a hierarchy that favored lighter-skinned Africans with whiter features and straighter hair over those with curly, kinky hair, typical of African attributes.

Simpler hairstyles like cornrows, braids and afros replaced the complex hairstyles that had been an integral part of their expression and history. Some slave masters demanded that their slaves cover their hair while working. In Louisiana, laws were established that prohibited Black women from wearing their natural hair and enforcing that scarves be worn over their heads at all times.

“There was and is so much attention drawn to what black people do with their hair, and a lot of people think they can infer certain things about them from that,” junior Kyra Alston said. “If you had natural hairstyles, it was looked down upon because it didn’t look like their hair.”

The term ‘good hair’ has been used to describe hair that is long and straight. During the early 1900’s, the first straightener for Black hair was created and in the following years, the first perm was created that chemically straightened or relaxed hair.

“A lot of times people have told me to straighten my hair because they don’t like it curly or think I look better,” seventh grader- Jayla Diggs said. “I think they just want me to be more like them.”

Now, ordinary people and governments are working to eliminate hair prejudice, whether it’s in the form of passing remarks or blatant statements about Black hair, with the belief that it should only be worn for the person who wears it and no one else.

In 2019, the CROWN Act (“Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) was created by Dove and the CROWN Coalition to end the discrimination of Black hair in schools and in the workplace. The Act has already been passed in 14 states, and while it appears to have made some progress, more must be done to prevent further prejudice.

“There needs to be an education piece of why some students wear their hair like this and of different groups as well because we’re not the only ones with hair issues,” Mckinney-Stokes said. “If you’re not informed then you’re going to be ignorant and not going to be able to help effectively.”

For many Black people our hair is not just something on our head, it allows us to tell a story through its intricate details and varied forms of expression. Despite our past, our world is changing and so is the acceptance of Black hair today. Although it will take time, we’re getting closer to a future when Black hair will be welcomed in whichever shape it takes.

The lead editorial expresses the opinion of the Trinity Voice editorial staff. Please send comments to [email protected]