Update 11:51 a.m. 9/12/13:
I’ve blogged this week about the ways African American girls and women can feel discouraged by school, the workplace or society in general from wearing their hair natural. There is a fear of being, how shall we say it, too ethnic. This is not a battle fought only by black women.
CBS newswoman, Julie Chen, told colleagues on the network’s morning show “The Talk” that she underwent plastic surgery to enlarge her eyes after a news director told her she would never anchor because she was Chinese. Chen was a Dayton, Ohio, television reporter at the time.
What happened to Chen is an alternate version of what happened to 7-year-old Oklahoma girl featured in my recent column. The girl was told her dreadlocks violated the school’s dress code. That story had a positive ending. The Deborah Brown Community School, a public charter school, is changing its policy to omit limits on hairstyles from Afros to dreadlocks. I wonder if this petition by the American Civil Liberties Union had something to do with the change.
In small, but troubling ways we make school more difficult for kids of color. The hairstyle rule had a racially unfair and disparate impact on African American students. Readers emailed me to say they were surprised that there were still negative connotations about African American hair. Some said they remembered the days when an Afro was considered a sign of black militancy but thought those days had passed. Black women wrote in to share hair experiences, some tinged with racism, others just the plain challenge we all go through keeping our hair together. One reader pointed out the cognitive dissonance of a rule that hurts black students created by a largely black school administration. Dumb decisions with a harmful racial impact can be committed by anyone of any race.
And when we talk about pressures to conform, it is not just in school as Chen’s story points out. It can be throughout our lives.
A few readers did not want to talk about race. They wanted to talk about the public charter school the Oklahoma girl attended. One armchair lawyer blogged that the whole thing was proof that charter schools are discriminatory. Sounds like another way of saying Tiana and her parents deserved what they got as punishment for going to a charter school. And the school the girl transferred to is a traditional public school, the armchair lawyer-blogger crowed. But as evidenced by the plethora of school district investigations by the federal Department of Education’s Office on Civil Rights, including here in Seattle, many school systems have found themselves on legal tenderhooks for discriminatory practices.
I reached out to a couple of real lawyers to better inform myself. Doug Honig of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Seattle chapter said:
“While there is no specific law guaranteeing students the right to freedom of expression, case law from the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that public school students do have important rights under the Constitution, including free speech rights. Courts often have given schools a lot of latitude to regulate student speech and dress if it interferes with the educational process or causes a safety problem. However, a public school has to have a compelling reason to bar a specific form of expression (including dress), and that is clearly absent in this situation,” Honig noted.
Bruce Johnson, a Seattle attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues said: “Hairstyling can constitute expression, and if so its regulation would present a First Amendment question.” The key for both lawyers is whether or not the school is a public entity. In the Oklahoma case it is. The overwhelming majority of charter schools are public schools subject to the same laws and constitutional protections as traditional public schools. Charters differ in rules around management, operations and curriculum, but they cannot take a different stance on constitutional protections.
The Tulsa school notes on its website that its charter can be revoked at anytime. Perhaps that explains the reversal. The school is sponsored by Langston University, a public institution. The Oklahoma education department website explains the state’s rules on public charter schools.
One last piece of clarifying information: Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” is not about the politics of black hair but about the economics of fake hair. Rock travels from Los Angeles to India and back charting the multimillion dollar hair-weaving industry. The majority of black women do not wear weaves. But the majority of black women are faced with the decision to chemically straighten their hair or wear it natural in the form of an Afro or braids or locs. Just like the Oklahoma girl.
Women of color face internal and external pressures to conform to the American definition of beauty. We know looks can impact, favorably or unfavorably on our educational, professional and personal prospects. This young girl got a taste of that battle. So did Julie Chen.
Up next readers share their stories about the politics of black hair. I’m surprised by how many are based here in Seattle. Stay tuned.