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I Am Not My Hair

Any/all visuals reminiscent of the India Arie banger “I am not my hair” are appropriate here, because yes . . . although this is an educational blog, we are unapologetically called upon to advocate on behalf of the redemptive beauty of our natural Black hair in both educational and professional work settings. Why?! Well obviously, simply being Black is now a crime and our children are increasingly and insanely mandated to conform to the same pre-determined, European standards of beauty which are antithetical to the splendor of our organic African selves – as a means to be educated. As a case in point, in August, an 11-year-old Black student at a private Roman Catholic school near New Orleans was formally suspended because administrators said her braided hair extensions violated school rules. A viral video shared by popular rap artist and actor T.I. on Instagram showed the sixth grader, Faith Fennidy, crying as she packed up her belongings and left Christ the King Parish School in La. Though the scholar student had worn braided styles for the past two years, inexplicably – such styles were now deemed a violation of school policy. Similarly, the entire Kentucky school system only recently lifted their antiquated, unbelievably racist and yet, extremely common ban on natural Black hairstyles. According to their outrageous policy: cornrows, twists and dreadlocks (among other styles), were expressly forbidden. Really? How about we outlaw stupidity, abject racism and institutionalized oppression in your backwards, un-evolved and undoubtedly mis-education fueled institutions?

In Kentucky, their actual, written policy read like an uninformed mandate on a slave plantation, “Hair styles that are extreme, distracting, or attention-getting will not be permitted. No dreadlocks, cornrolls (sic), twists, mohawks, no jewelry will be worn in the hair. No braids will be allowed on males.” As an educator, I am appalled but not surprised at the audacity + the caucasian exercise in White privilege, I.E. the #Caucasity that is required to conceive of such a policy. Having taught for 20+ years, with more than a decade in African-centered schools, comprising curricula centered on the African experience – could our schools have successfully implemented a policy whereby straight blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin, distracting long, oily hairstyles or attention-getting hair flips were disallowed? I think not. To be clear, NO hairstyle or element of identity traditionally associated with White people is deemed a violation of standard policy and has yet to be banned by schools and/or workplaces. Yet, the disclaimer for such innately discriminatory policies is evident in federal court rulings and illogical, non-scientific claims such as, “We feel that a student’s academic success is directly correlated to appropriate attire and appearance”. Clearly, despite increasing parent protests and public outrage, these policies persist in schools as a means to demonstrate a mere sign of the overtly racist times, in which we all live. The indefensible reality is that despite the record-breaking dwindling numbers of White students enrolled in U.S. public schools, American institutions are truly adept at perpetuating a White supremacist ideal – achievable and maintained via denying the rights and negating the very personhood of Black people. For each of the schools which knowingly legislates and promotes such baseless, immoral and racist policies – parents must duly govern themselves accordingly in making crucial school enrollment decisions. Opting to fight against selected institutional protocols, rather than exposing and then divesting of these unfit institutions, is essentially to pay for own disrespect and subjugation.

Of course, such discriminatory educational policies are assumed, even when not explicitly stated, and strictly enforced – although they violate our identity and humanity as a people. Adding insult to injury and harm, these practices are replicated by larger society in the form of government sanctioned workplace discrimination. As recently as 2016, the 11th Circuit U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruled that employment discrimination is legal against people who wear locks (a popular, natural hairstyle as proudly modeled above in my profile photo, sans makeup, in affirmation of our natural beauty ideal). According to Dr. Kaila Adia Story, Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville, policies of this nature are “racist,” “gender biased,” and “femme-phobic”. In addition, Dr. Story asserted that “to police or punish students of African descent who wish to express their politics, ancestry, and personal style through the adornment and/or styling of their hair in its natural state” is to enforce policies targeting Black people. Though occupying this battlefront is unconscionable in 2018, it is apparent that we must fight on every front, literally every day just to BE Black . . . as such, #EducateToLiberate wishes to remind the entire world that:

#1 – Black people have the agency, self-determination, freedom and right to BE Black in every sense of the word. We should never be expected, forced nor legislated to manipulate our natural beauty to acquiesce to European norms in either schools nor the workplace.

#2 – For the record, natural hairstyles are NOT a fashion statement, but an immutable element of our identity as a people. Therefore, to outlaw our hair in the state in which it naturally grows from our scalps infringes upon our individual freedom to simply exist as people of African descent, and is akin to outlawing us, as a people.

#3 – The pervasive nature upon which institutions devise of ingenious methods to discriminate on the basis of race is increasingly popular and the corresponding impact upon all aspects of American society speaks volumes. Despite the fact that race is merely a social construct conveniently and unevenly applied as a tool in the perpetuation of White supremacist norms, discriminatory school rules and racist policy legislation as tied to our identity, are no less damaging to our psyche as a people.

#4 – Any and all veiled attempts to deny our innate right to agency and our legal rights to autonomously be our Black selves only serve to expose the #Racism, so carefully disguised as dress code policies in an institutionally oppressive society.

Within the unique context of celebrating our Blackness in all of its splendor and glory, we hereby affirm the unadulterated, natural elements of our identity and acknowledge that it is crucial to see ourselves and navigate the world around us in a positive light. Positive self-talk far outweighs the impact of the external standards of conformity imposed upon us; so to the extent that Black men and women unapologetically embrace our melanin, appreciate the unique aesthetics of our beauty and adorn our natural hair in all its forms with increasing pride, we thereby lessen and ultimately eliminate any/all expectations to continually conform to unseemly and unrealistic European standards of beauty. As women, many of us have grown accustomed to compromising our values and even burying our authentic selves in order to be accepted, protected and elevated in society. This is a dangerous, self-deprecating legacy to pass down to future generations. We must continue to affirm our own standards of beauty by celebrating our natural, Black selves to provide an increasing community of support to remind Black girls that their identity is a unique point of pride, not an albatross or component of a dress code which can be successfully banned. When I unapologetically present myself as an accomplished school administrator and/or college professor and embody the fullness of my outer beauty and genius persona as Dr. Nkenge, I always do so in my natural state. For all of my adult life I have proudly worn a wide a variety of natural hairstyles, jewelry and attire and have opted to be my authentic Black self – even when it has been to the chagrin of upper level supervisors (I.E. school superintendents and board members). I encourage all of my sisters to do the same. Kudos to the marketing team of My Black is Beautiful and BET’s Black Girls Rock! for their recent efforts in celebrating and extending the VIP treatment to aforementioned sixth grader, Faith Fennidy, in their valiant attempt to assuage her victimization by the racist school policy demanding her ouster (which has since been rescinded), at Christ the King Elementary School. Ultimately, though the world around us may well persist in offending our sensibilities and criminalizing our Blackness – we must fiercely embrace, love, uplift and defend our standards of natural Black beauty at all costs.

Indeed, “I am not my hair . . . I am the soul that lives within”. – India Arie