With school policies targeted at Black kids’ hair, and colorism effecting who is seen as a troublemaker in the classroom, it’s important to examine how this hinders children’s education as well.
Natural Hair & Discretionary Suspensions
In 2021, Dyree Williams,[ a student at Houston’s East Bernard high school] found after moving from Cincinnati, Ohio that he would not be able to attend school due to his hair. East Bernard’s dress code [which according to CNN has since been removed], stated that braided hair and cornrows are not permitted, which included Williams locs. Williams’ mother, Desiree Bullock stated that she hoped upon meeting him, they would allow for an exemption. She was just pointed back to the school’s dress code policy. According to Bullock, simply moving to a different district isn’t a viable option for them and attempted to file a religious exemption, which was ultimately denied. If you have any familiarity with natural hair and its relationship with the education system, this is nothing new. In fact, according to a Brookings Institution article, these texturist policies meant to target Black kids are labeled as “discretionary suspensions,” are fairly common. According to their research, 70% of all suspensions are discretionary. Black students were also found to be more likely to be suspended for discretionary issues like their dress code and violating hair policies. This can lead to an abundance of issues falling in its path.
“Discretionary suspensions are not ‘required’ by law, yet they pose dire consequences to students of color. They place students on a trajectory towards poor academic performance, leading to higher rates of dropping out of school, joining gangs, and getting arrested before the age of 21,” they said.
According to the Hair Fairy Godmother, a cosmetologist and hairstylist with over 22 year’s experience, a student’s relationship with education is less rooted in the bias of teachers, and more in a lack of understanding. Children don’t necessarily take note of the difference in hair texture, but they do know that they’re different from the other students.
“As a child, of course, you wouldn’t understand what’s the difference between the textures. All you know is her hair is curly and mine isn’t. It’s different colors, it’s shaped differently. I guess for me, it would be the understanding part of it, as opposed to just saying they’re different,” she said.
An example she provides of the impact of observing these differences is her own experience going to catholic school. She compares it to the Spike Lee film School Daze, where one group of girls had what was considered, “Good Hair,” and those with coily drawn up hair.
Colorism & It’s Impact on Education
According to a 2022 study entitled, “A Scoping Review of Colorism in Schools: Academic, Social, and Emotional Experiences of Students of Color.” They found that colorism affects the education of those with darker skin and Afrocentric features, either due to the lack of academic support or proxy teacher prejudice.
“Whether through teacher bias towards those with darker skin and Afrocentric features or through the lack of perceived academic support in schools, the academic experiences of students of color are impacted by bias. This implicit and explicit bias against darker skin results in the privileging of lighter skin and more Eurocentric features,” they said.
This discrimination towards darker skin tones can result in Black adolescents [specifically girls], being targeted and disproportionately punished in school, being three times more likely to be suspended than their lighter skinned counterparts. This can affect the education of young girls as well, with them receiving much lower grades.
According to Vox Atl, these discriminatory practices can cause divide and conflict between students due to them being “othered,” in a community that is already a minority. The Hair Fairy Godmother backs up this concept, pointing out that in her experience going to a catholic school, colorism ran as rampant as texturism. There was a divide between the light skinned girls who had “good hair,” and the dark-skinned girls with a coily/kinky hair texture. Because they were being taught how to function in a corporate environment, the girls with darker skin and kinkier hair were told that their hair was unnatural.
“Instead of hair being an expression, we were told that it was unnatural. Like you’ve never seen anybody grow green hair out of the scalp. So therefore, is not true. Is not believable. So, we had to do the relaxers because kinky hair, curly hair that was unheard of. That’s not professional,” she said.
So, what can be done to tackle these issues in the education system? The Crown Act, legislation that prohibits denial of educational or employment opportunities on the basis of someone’s hair texture or protective style. The hair fairy godmother believes this can help, but that help will be for the future. The help it provides will also be minimal.
“It won’t be an easy process, it won’t be a quick process. However, if we have enough people that will fight just like we had enough people that will fight or have fought for us, then it can be a thing. But it’ll be a thing for the future way down the line. And even if it will help, it only will help a little bit. It won’t necessarily change that it will take centuries for it to be where we think are where we want it to be,” she said.
What she thinks will be able to provide more help is offering dialogue and understanding regarding colorism and texturism.
“Have conversations, don’t have children being afraid to ask. That is a big stigma that we have in our community. Children are afraid to ask because they don’t want to be first, that they don’t want to act like they’re antagonizing, or they’re aggravating the adults or whatever. Let them be free. Because that’s what hair is. Hair is all about creativity. Here is your crown here is your glory. We have to stop the hatred within ourselves the things that we say the things that we do, and let’s tackle what’s really going on, kill the self-hatred and help the children,” she said.