The construction of race has shaped racial identities and influenced standards of beauty, which includes the creation of a hair hierarchy that depicts long and straight hair as the ideal standard and Black women’s hair as the nonstandard. The tighter the curl, the thicker the hair, and shorter hair is undesirable.
Our hair, if we have some, is an extension of our identity. Styling our hair is a form of expression, sometimes in response to a need to be different, to resist social norms, or conform to ideals of beauty or attractiveness. The History of Hair documents how hair has always been associated with wealth, status, and age. Accordingly, the selling and buying of hair in order to have “long tresses” is more than two centuries old. And, for women, hair denoted one’s wealth and beauty. Thomas (2013) suggests hair is an indicator of health and attractiveness; unfortunately, European standards of beauty typically devalue the texture and length of Black hair.
In a racialized context, Black hair, specifically natural or styled in traditions that reflect diverse African cultures, is in opposition to European standards of beauty. For example, a group of young girls in South Africa led a protest against their school administration regarding assaults about their hair. The devaluing of Black hair, natural Black hair, is quite pervasive in media and other social systems. Many popular magazines depict Black women with straight hair or weave. Language found in Black communities use terms like “good hair” to describe hair that is closer to straight hair. Moreover, the extent to which some Black women will go in order to process, relax, straighten, and dye their hair to adhere to European standards of beauty is well documented (Bryant, 2013; Thomas, 2013).
Clearly, social messages about one’s hair is a form of cultural alienation and lead to micro assaults against one’s identity. So, what happens when Black children face deliberate punishment for expressing their culture and identity through hair?
"They were harassing my child to the point that he came home one day so distraught and wanted us to relax his hair so he could fit in…The school has made him feel not wanted, the school has always harassed him."
While school districts suggest certain hairstyles are distracting, racially coded language aims to direct punitive discipline towards certain students. Macon (2015) wrote:
Americans must recognize that physical and cultural traits, such as hair texture and hairstyle, are increasingly used as a proxy for race. School dress code policies that prohibit ethnically Black hairstyles have two fundamental issues. The first is a devaluation of racially-constructed “Blackness.” Prohibition of Black traits has become a politically palatable way of devaluing the Black body. In the same way boys’ hair length regulations implicitly devalue a feminized attribute (having long hair), the prohibition of cornrows, afros, dreadlocks, and other ethnically Black hairstyles implicitly devalues Black persons and Black culture. Secondly, these dress code policies target and disproportionately affect Black children while appearing to be [r]acially neutral rules.
School policies foster cultural alienation and are a form of trait discrimination when they punish physical and cultural expression in order for young people to assimilate into “dominant” standards (Macon, 2015). Race is not neutral; it is pervasive and problematic in the public education system.
Young people negotiate their identity, sense of belonging and connectedness in the public education system; this system can be quite alienating. Continued stressors occur in the lives of Black and Brown children and adolescents when they have to alter their physical and cultural self in order to “fit in” and conform. While school districts indicate they welcome diversity, diversity does not mean inclusion—inclusion recognizes cultural differences as strengths and assets in the learning environment. Valuing the “natural” state of one’s hair is far more healthy and empowering than forcing young people to change. Rather, the public school system should consider how their policies are disempowering and the extent to which this leads to other health-related complications.
Bryant, S. L. (2013). The beauty ideal: the effects of European standards of beauty on Black women. Columbia Social Work Review, 4(1), 80-91.
Macon, A. L. F. (2014). Hair's the Thing: Trait Discrimination and Forced Performance of Race Through Racially Conscious Public School Hairstyle Prohibitions. University of Pennsylvania, Journal of Constitutional Law, 17, 1255-1281.
Tomas, T. (2013). “Hair” they are: The ideologies of Black hair. The York Review, 9, 1-10.