For the last two years, educators all over the country have expressed an interest in creating schools that are genuinely inclusive. We recognize that students who experience a sense of belonging at school have greater levels of emotional wellness and academic achievement. Yet, as of today, a search for hair discrimination in schools results in more than 30 million hits. There are simply too many examples of Black children’s academic opportunities being impacted by their hair.
There have even been laws enacted to end hair discrimination in schools and workplaces in response to this growing concern. The CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, for example, has been signed into law in 19 states and counting. So, how can school leaders eliminate discriminatory hair policies and be identity affirming as it relates to Black hair?
4 Ways School Administrators Can End Anti-Black Hair Policies
1. Improve school culture. Numerous studies have shown that the majority of Black girls and some Black boys have dealt with hair-related harassment, teasing, or bullying at school. Administrators can begin to turn this around by doing the following:
- Encouraging teachers to have students take a deep dive into hair discrimination. Hearing students’ thoughts on the issue can provide a lot of insight. When I was an eighth-grade English teacher, we listened to Solange Knowles’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” read the lyrics, and explored the relationship between our hair and our identity. We all learned from each other during the discussions and related writing assignments.
- Always addressing community members’ biased or unkind comments about Black hair. Whether the offense is deliberate or unintentional, it’s a teachable moment for addressing the larger implications of bias.
- Empowering students to critically review school dress code policies, especially those that are related to hair. Young people enjoy the idea of being involved in creating or dismantling rules, and it serves as an organic lesson about policy-making and revision.
2. Enhance representation. Representation creates opportunities for all students to embrace and celebrate Black hair. This morning I was scrolling on Instagram and saw a repost from @kabee_315, a Black teacher. The caption read as follows: “After seeing one of my kids crying because one of the boys made fun of her hair, I was reminded of a picture of a teacher who copied her student’s hairstyle for a similar reason. The next day I brought my supplies to school and copied her hairstyle… We had a class conversation about how our words and actions impact each other.”
This is one of many examples of how representation is an incredibly powerful force for children. Books we choose to teach, historical and current-day figures we talk about, images we display throughout the school, and guests we invite to speak at assemblies all provide opportunities to increase representation and create an identity-affirming setting that benefits all students.
3. Acknowledge bias. At the root of race-based hair discrimination are systemic racism and bias. This contributes to the idea that Black hair cannot be both natural and professional.
Start by acknowledging bias in your hair preferences, and encourage others to do the same. Reading the Perception Institute’s ”Good Hair“ study is a great place to start.
4. Evaluate dress codes. During a study I conducted in 2020, my research partner and I randomly selected and audited dress codes at schools across the country. Around 70 percent of them mentioned hair, 20 percent forbade students to wear their hair in Afros, and around 20 percent forbade students to wear their hair in braids.
Here are two critical questions we can ask ourselves about our school’s dress code policies:
- What is the purpose of this rule? Often we rationalize dress code policies by saying that they prevent distraction. What message are we perpetuating by telling Black children that their hair is a distraction?
- Are Black students disproportionately impacted by this policy? According to the model policy from the Dignity in Schools Campaign, dress codes prohibiting “braids, locs, beads, Afros, Afro-puffs, weaves, extensions, hair worn naturally,” target Black children and faculty.
Hair discrimination isn’t about aesthetics. There are lots of related topics you can explore to help you understand the issue.
Even though we’re talking about anti-Black hair policies, dress codes and all elements of school culture should also be critically assessed periodically to determine the impact on all marginalized groups, such as other people of color, people who are female-identifying, those who are gender-expansive, or those who are part of a religious minority. Our ongoing and concerted efforts will go a long way toward providing identity-affirming spaces for all members of our school communities.