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School bans on dreadlocks and afros draw criticism

Schools' long-standing bans on dreadlocks and afros have drawn sharp criticism from African-American families who say that such policies reinforce racial stigmas and double standards.

By Leanne ItalieAssociated Press / September 26, 2013

Terrance Parker, (l.), poses with wife Miranda Parker, and their daughter Tiana, 7, in front of Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa, Okla., Sept. 8. The school has changed its dress code after inciting criticism for telling a Tiana that her dreadlocks violated the school's policy.

AP Photo/Tulsa World, Cory Young

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"Why are you so sad?" a TV reporter asked the little girl with a bright pink bow in her hair.

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"Because they didn't like my dreads," she sobbed, wiping her tears. "I think that they should let me have my dreads."

With those words, second-grader Tiana Parker of Tulsa, Oklahoma, found herself, at age 7, at the center of decades of debate over standards of black beauty, cultural pride, and freedom of expression.

It was no isolated incident at the predominantly black Deborah Brown Community School, which in the face of outrage in late August apologized and rescinded language banning dreadlocks, Afros, mohawks, and other "faddish" hairstyles it had called unacceptable and potential health hazards.

A few weeks earlier, another charter school, the Horizon Science Academy in Lorain, Ohio, sent a draft policy home to parents that proposed a ban on "Afro-puffs and small twisted braids." It, too, quickly apologized and withdrew the wording.

But at historically black Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, the dean of the business school has defended and left in place a 12-year-old prohibition on dreadlocks and cornrows for male students in a leadership seminar for MBA candidates, saying the look is not businesslike.

Tiana's father, barber student Terrance Parker, said he and his wife chose not to change her style and moved the straight-A student to a different public school, where she now happily sings songs about her hair with friends.

"I think it stills hurts her. But the way I teach my kids is regardless of what people say, you be yourself and you be happy with who you are and how God made you," he said.

Tiana added: "I like my new school better." As for the thousands of emails and phone calls of support the family has received from around the world, she said she feels "cared about."

Deborah Brown, the school's founder, did not return a call from The Associated Press. Jayson Bendik, dean of students at Horizon in Lorain, said in an email that "our word choice was a mistake."

In New York City, the dress code at 16-year-old Dante de Blasio's large public high school in Brooklyn includes no such hair restrictions. Good thing for Dante, whose large Afro is hard to miss at campaign stops and in a TV spot for his father, Bill de Blasio, who is running for mayor.

There is no central clearinghouse for local school board policies on hairstyles, or surveys indicating whether such rules are widespread. Regardless, mothers of color and black beauty experts consider the controversies business as usual.

"Our girls are always getting messages that tell them that they are not good enough, that they don't look pretty enough, that their skin isn't light enough, that their hair isn't long enough, that their hair isn't blond enough," said Beverly Bond of the New York-based esteem-building group Black Girls Rock.

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