A 17-year-old girl in Tallahassee, Fla., is the latest young woman of color to face disciplinary action at her school because of the way she chose to wear her hair.
Jenesis Johnson has had an Afro on and off since middle school. Now in the 11th grade, the North Florida Christian School student has styled her hair in this way on a daily basis for the past seven months.
Yet two weeks ago, a teacher at the private school confronted the teen and asked her about how long she had been “rocking that hairstyle” and what kind of grooming practices went into maintaining it. Two days after that conversation, Johnson was called into the assistant principal’s office, where she was told her hair was “extreme and faddish and out of control,” Johnson recalled in an interview with Florida’s WCTV. She claims the administrator also called her hair “all over the place” before telling her that it was a violation of school policies.
North Florida Christian School’s student handbook explicitly prohibits “faddish or extreme hairstyles” and says that “hair should be neat and clean at all times. The administration will make the decision on any questionable styles.”
Johnson’s mother tells WCTV that she was told that unless her daughter changes her hair, she would not be allowed to return as a student to the school in the fall. She would, however, be permitted to finish out her last week of the current school year.
Nancy Abudu, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, says Johnson’s story speaks largely to the way that “people of color are realizing that assimilation is not necessarily the way to go” — and the dominant white culture’s resistance to this.
“We should not feel uncomfortable or ashamed of our cultural heritage,” Abudu tells Yahoo Beauty. “Our tone of skin, our texture of hair — these are parts of our identities that should be celebrated. White, dominant culture has no need to celebrate in this same way because it’s already mainstream. Any departure from that is seen as a threat and a departure from the mainstream idea of beauty.”
Abudu notes that all restrictions on hair, clothing, and body piercings as outlined in school dress code policies are likely to fall under protections for free speech and freedom of expression, issues that she says her organization “would have a problem with, on its face.”
She adds that the standards set by the 1969 Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines makes clear that prohibitive behavior in terms of dress or hair would have to be proven to be disruptive or provide a safety risk for the school. “Schools are usually not able to meet that high burden,” Abudu says. “And an Afro for a student? I just can’t imagine that meeting that criteria.”
Abudu adds private schools are not subject to the same requirements regarding constitutionally prohibited actions as public schools. “The idea of having an Afro in and of itself being disruptive is not only false, but for students of color, it forces them to play into the narrative that sees black students penalized more than white students,” she says.
“If a white student with long — very, very long, even — blond hair were flipping her hair and playing with it all day long in the classroom, it’s unlikely that would be called out as disruptive. But a student with an Afro being called disruptive is a reflection of institutions that have problems with black identity. This isn’t even about cultural sensitivity but respect — and this is not respecting one culture. The First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause ensure that all people are being treated the same as others, equally,” Abudu emphasizes.
Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, education counsel at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), likewise tells Yahoo Beauty that Johnson’s story “is one of the more egregious examples” she’s seen of seemingly discriminatory school dress and hair policies. “To say that the way hair grows out of a black girl’s head naturally is faddish is clearly discriminatory,” she notes.
Onyeka-Crawford notes that schools maintaining biased policies can have seriously detrimental effects on the educational prospects of girls of color. “There have been studies done to show that black girls who identify with Afrocentrism and have a positive sense of identity with their black self are more likely to go to college and graduate and be successful,” she explains. “When we see policies that attempt to erase Afrocentrism, that counteracts that sense of identity and creates low self-esteem in black girls, it creates an environment where they do not feel welcome in their own school. And when they do not feel welcome, they are not engaged, it’s hard to concentrate. These policies that are supposed to create a better learning environment create a hostile environment for black girls and girls of color.”
Onyeka-Crawford suggests that should you suspect discrimination by your child’s school, that parents reach out to a trusted teacher or principal to elevate concerns and to gather other concerned parents to do the same. She also encourages parents to “reach out to national advocacy groups like the National Women’s Law Center to try to shine a light and make changes in the school and school district.”
Likewise, Abudu says that parents should always start with the principal or other administrator if they have concerns about potential discrimination regarding school policies. Should that prove unsuccessful, she notes that “we always encourage families to reach out to us at the ACLU if they are not seeing a positive response when trying other avenues.”
Abudu says stories like that of Johnson’s reinforce how much progress still needs to be made “when it comes to racial sensitivities and coming together as people. No student should have to deal with the racist or biased views of a teacher, and that’s exactly what’s happening in this situation and around the country.”
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