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.
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"The public banning of our hair or anything about us that looks like we look, it feels like it's such a step backward."Skip to next paragraph
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In Chicago, Leila Noelliste has been blogging about natural hair at Blackgirllonghair.com for about five years. She has followed the school cases closely. The 28-year-old mother with a natural hairstyle and a year-old son said it is a touchy issue among African-Americans and others.
"This is the way the hair grows out of my head, yet it's even shocking in some black communities, because we've kind of been told culturally that to be acceptable and to make other people kind of comfortable with the way that we look, we should straighten our hair, whether through heat or chemicals," she said. "So whether we're in non-black communities or black communities, with our natural hair, we stand out. It evokes a lot of reaction."
Particularly painful, said Noelliste and others, is the notion that natural styles are not hygienic.
"Historically natural hair has been viewed as dirty, unclean, unkempt, messy," she said. "An older black generation, there's this idea of African-American exceptionalism, that the way for us to get ahead is to work twice as hard as any white person and to prove that if we just work hard and we look presentable we'll get ahead, and that's very entrenched. My generation, we're saying that that's not fair. We should be able to show up as we are and based on our individual merit and effort be judged on that."
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said legal rulings on hair and other issues pertaining to school dress codes have been fairly clear.
"For decades now, Supreme Court precedent has reaffirmed that clothing, including hairstyle, is part of a student's speech, and if you're going to interfere with that, then the school district has to make some findings beforehand demonstrating that there is an immediate threat to the academic environment," he said. "That wasn't the case here and in most dress-code cases."
Denene Millner in Atlanta created a blog, Mybrownbaby.com, for other African-American moms and also followed the school hair controversies. She went natural nearly 14 years ago for the sake of her daughters, now 11 and 14.
"I didn't want them to grow up with the same idea that I had when I was little, that there was something wrong with the way that my hair grew out of my head," said Millner, 45. "It's something that we've grappled with for a very, very long time. There's a whole lot of assumptions made about you that may not necessarily be true: that you're political, that you're Afro-centric, that you might be vegetarian, that you're kind of a hipster."
She said watching Tiana sob on camera "about these grown-ups, black folks, who are supposed to not just educate her but show her how to love herself, it tore my heart to shreds."
Correction: In an earlier version of this story The Associated Press reported erroneously that Leila Noelliste has two daughters. Noelliste has one son.