The 63rd anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was earlier this month, marking the historic integration of the American school system. Yet, it’s still as separate and unequal as ever.
Sophomores Mya and Deanna Cook, African American twins who attend Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts, received detention, got banned from prom and were kicked off their respective sports teams just because they came back from spring break with professionally-braided extensions.
According to the Mystic Valley School’s student handbook, “Students may not wear drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles such as shaved lines or shaved sides or have a hairstyle that could be distracting to other students (extra-long hair or hair more than 2 inch in thickness or height is not allowed.)” It also bans coloring, dying, lightening (sun-in), streaking, and braided hair extensions, a traditionally black hairstyle.
The girls’ adoptive father, Aaron Cook, argues such regulations unfairly target black students. “When we read that part of the policy, we felt it unjustly impacted our daughters and unjustly impacted the population of colored people going to that school”, he said. “You don’t often see Caucasian females wearing extensions.”
The school denies a racial bias in its dress code, saying its policies are meant to “foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion or materialism.”
But while MVRCS says it promotes a “culture emphasizing education,” it simultaneously belittles the cultures of its minority students.
Over 50% of the students at MVRCS are minorities, said Cook. His daughters are not the only students targeted by unjust dress codes.
“There are kids who are being rounded up and marched downstairs for daily hair inspections,” he said. “The girls don’t really understand why they are treating them this way.”
The nature of this policy is undoubtedly racist. “Shaved lines and shaved sides?” That’s a taper fade, a staple hairstyle for black men. “Hair more than 2 inch in thickness or height?” That’s literally an afro.
Hair extensions are protective styles for black women. From box braids to Senegalese twists to cornrows to weaves, black women need these styles so their hair can grow with low manipulation, which means not doing their hair every day.
A policy like the one mentioned perpetuates the belief that straight hair is “better” hair, as white students are rarely punished for breaking this policy, according to the Cook sisters.
To avoid further punishment, MVRCS suggested the girls use heat and chemical straighteners, which can lead to hair damage, prematurity, and even cancer.
So if the school wants “natural hair,” why promote something so unnatural?
Natural hair is different for everyone. It seems like the school is less worried about unnatural hair and more worried about “black” hair.
This policy has inherently hurt students of color and their opportunities. Deanna described one incident in which, on the way to a track meet, the athletic director took her off the bus and prohibited her from competing….for her hair.
This is institutionalized racism: the discriminatory mistreatment of an individual or group by religious, educational or social societies through unequal selection or bias.
As a black girl who has worn Mya and Deanna’s same hairstyle to school plenty of times, it makes me outraged that I’m considered lucky to have never had detention for my hair.
This is not the first time I’ve heard stories like this. These kind of stories are monthly occurrences.
Jenesis Johnson, a 17-year-old who attends the North Florida Christian School, was the latest reported black girl to be punished for her hair. When her school said her afro was “out of control” and needed to be fixed, she responded “My hair is fixed.”
All over the world, from Massachusetts and Florida to Pretoria, South Africa, black children have their hair, bodies, and words policed by these institutions. This continues to follow the black community into the workplace. Black women weren’t even allowed to wear braids and cornrows in the U.S. military until 2014.
With the rise of stories like these–countless articles depicting discrimination against the black body, little black girls and boys as young as age four being denied pre-school education for the culture they wear on their heads, schools specifically targeting and harming black children–it’s no wonder why I hear that “99% of students arrested in New York are black and Latino.” If an education is the key to success, our current school system is stealing that key right from black kids’ hands.
It seems that youth of color always have to compromise themselves in order for them to learn, or else they are unworthy.
Aaron Cook expressed frustration with the school’s policies and says he’s determined to repeal them.
“I’m going to continue applying pressure,” said Cook.“This has grown bigger than our twins and now we feel like we have taken on this battle for all kids attending school. Even if the girls get suspended or expelled we won’t stop fighting. The policy has to change.”
Hair allows young black people–like me–to express confidence in ourselves and our culture. It’s a part of who we are and where we came from.
Remember that next time someone gets offended when you say “It’s just hair.”