An African-American girl and her mother plan legal action against a Los Angeles area school after the youth was allegedly dismissed from class last Friday. Her infraction? Wearing brown leggings that matched her skin.
Eleven-year-old Deja Tunstill claims that a teacher’s assistant at Mount Gleason Middle School sent her to the principal’s office, because the color of her brown stretch pants against her body was too close in color and made her look nude. The girl says she was then sent home.
The honor student with a perfect behavior record felt humiliated by the incident according to reports. Her mother, Yolanda Tunstill, is irate at what she perceives as an act of racial injustice against her daughter.
“I felt discriminated against,” Tunstill told local station KTLA5. “I don’t understand. How could you not understand she had pants on? I can understand if they said ‘okay, this type of material, this type of clothing,’ but for you to make a remark to state because the pants were brown and to make a remark about my daughter’s skin color… That was not right to me.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District asserts that Deja was not sent home. In addition, the dress code of Mount Gleason Middle School specifically prohibits students from wearing tights, loungewear or sleepwear alone.
Yet, Tunstill claims leggings comprise most of her daughter’s daily wardrobe. “She wears them all the time, all the time,” Tunstill said. “There has never been a problem before, not at all… until she wore the brown ones, and then it became a problem.”
The school district explained in a letter to Ms. Tunstill that the teacher’s assistant has been disciplined.
“Please be assured that your daughter was not asked to leave school, nor was she sent home,” the letter reads. “With regards to concerns about the comments of a staff member, please be assured the appropriate administrative action is being taken.”
Yolanda Tunstill is not satisfied with this response. She plans to take legal action against a school system that she believes shamed Deja because of her skin.
The sensitivity of blacks regarding their skin tones is well-documented. Recently, veteran filmmaker Bill Duke co-produced the documentary Dark Girls to explore the widespread pain of many black women that begins when society forces them to recognize where their skin lies on the spectrum of dark to light.
Women in the film of shades of brown similar to Ms. Tunstill and her daughter recount through tears the devastating moment in their young adulthood when they realized what being dark — or just not being light — could mean: a life of being considered “less than.” Meaning less attractive, less valuable, and as a result less likely to be happy than lighter black or non-black women.
This valuation based on hue is called “colorism: a state of prejudice, conscious and unconscious, that causes both black people and white people to label as more beautiful or desirable or intelligent individuals with lighter shades of skin, particularly when it comes to black women,” The New York Times comments about the phenomenon.
Thus, the issue of being judged based on color for African-Americans is extremely potent in its emotional and social implications. For young girls like Deja, having your skin color linked to punishment at an early age might create a life-long complex that devastates self-esteem.
While the outcome of the Tunstill’s pending law suit will determine the legal culpability in this matter, Deja’s story is just one of millions regarding black women’s pain at being negatively scrutinized for being brown.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.