Black hair restrictions in schools are a return to the Black Codes

What happens when they think they can control our children’s hair? Some people, apparently, are trying to bring us back to the Black Codes, to the Jim Crow era, and the slavery times before that, when society controlled the movements and behavior of Black people.

As kids throughout the country get out of school for the summer, it is a perfect time to reflect on all of the Black children who, over the course of the past semester, have been punished, disciplined or otherwise called out and singled out for wearing braids, locks, natural hair or any other culturally expressive hairstyle. Studying while Black, apparently, is a thing.

Consider some of the outrageous incidents that have taken place. In the Boston area, 15-year-old twin sisters faced detention and suspension for wearing braids, which their charter school claimed was a violation of the dress code. Mya and Deanna Cook, sophomores at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Mass., were banned from the prom and stripped of extracurricular activities and sports team privileges for violating the school’s prohibition on wearing extensions.

Similarly, a 16-year-old girl with natural curly hair was told by her Orlando school that her hairstyle was against school dress code policy, and that she had to get her hair done. And a 7-year-old in Tulsa switched schools after her dreadlocks were barred due to a policy “regarding any personal hygiene issues that it believes causes a risk to the health, safety and welfare of the student, his or her classmates, and faculty or staff or detracts from the educational environment.”

A 16-year old boy on Monroe, Louisiana was pulled out of school and not allowed to attend class for dying his hair blond in honor of Odell Beckham, Jr. of the New York Giants, even when white students freely dyed their hair and attended class without any controversy. About 20 students at the school were singled out for their hairstyles, including hair the school felt was “too nappy.”

One teacher had the nerve to send a note home to a Black mother instructing her not to use coconut oil on her daughter’s hair, because…wait for it…it “stinks”:

And just in case you think this is just going on in the U.S., it isn’t. Two girls of Sudanese descent were pulled out of their school in Melbourne, Australia and told to remove their braids by the end of the week in order to comply with the school’s “strict uniform policy.” A middle school in Toronto pulled a Black student out of class and told her that her hair was “too poofy” and unprofessional, and would not allow her to return to class until she pulled it back into a ponytail. And last year in South Africa—that’s right—students at Pretoria High School pushed back against their natural tresses. Last month, Black students at the prestigious Pretoria High School for Girls challenged the school code of conduct banning braids, cornrows and dreadlocks. If black people can’t be black in Africa, where can we?

Meanwhile, back in the states, in 2009 a white Milwaukee teacher cut off the braid of Lamya Cannon, 7, because the girl was playing with her hair. After cutting off Lamya’s hair in front of the class, the teacher sent the girl back to her desk. Would this ever happen to a white girl with pigtails? And could we ever envision a Black teacher doing this to said white girl?

Reading all of these stories, I think of my own vibrant, expressive 7-year-old son, Micah. Micah wears a Mohawk, as he has for quite some time, because that’s who he is. Thankfully, he attends a school that respects inclusion and diversity and celebrates our differences and cultural expression. But so many of our children, apparently, are in another situation altogether.

These days, when some in white America claim they are taking their country back, all the way up to the White House, it is no accident that Black children are punished for their Blackness. We know the studies about the disproportionate discipline against Black children, and black girls in particular. This is part of the school-to-prison pipeline, a regime of punishment following kids through adulthood. Most of all, it is an effort to monitor their bodies, not unlike the Black Codes established during Jim Crow to restrict the activities and labor of Black people and maintain white supremacy.

Like the Slave Codes before the Civil War, these laws–which dictated what African-Americans could do, what they could be, and where they could do it–were punishable by arrest, beatings and forced plantation labor.  All the while, we were told we were ugly and our hair undesirable.

These codes, like the so-called dress codes in place at some schools today, serve the same purpose—to normalize whiteness and criminalize Blackness. When schools tell Black children the hair God gave them is an issue of bad hygiene and grooming, what they mean is they think Black people and their hair are less desirable. Some things never change. Institutional racism, not the hair, must change.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove.