“Why are you so sad?” a TV reporter asked the little girl with a bright pink bow in her hair.
“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, Okla., 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at the predominantly black Deborah Brown Community School, which in the face of outrage in late August apologized and rescinded language banning dreadlocks, Afros, mohawks and other “faddish” hairstyles it had called unacceptable and potential health hazards.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, Va., 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.
“The public banning of our hair or anything about us that looks like we look, it feels like it’s such a step backward.”
Bond founded the organization in response to an episode in 2007 when radio host Don Imus called members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” He later apologized.
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 two daughters who also wear their hair that way 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.”