Two months ago 7 year old Tiana Parker was sent home from school because her hair cut was considered “distracting.” What was her haircut? Thin dreadlocks tied back in a bow. The Oklahoma public school that sent her home has a policy that says “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” Really? Could they be any more blatantly racist? Afros are the natural style of many black women’s hair and you want to imply it’s distracting?
This issue hits particularly close to home. As a child of interracial marriage (my dad is black, my mom white) my hair was often an issue of contention. I was born with a full head of it. My mother’s family has thick hair, especially for Anglicans, which combined with the kinky curls of my dad’s DNA lead to this:
It only got thicker and more out of control from there. I was 15 before we decided to try relaxing my hair. I grew up in the south so having my white mom take me to a black hair salon to get a perm was always a level of complicated that would take a text book to explain. It cost $150 and took three and a half hours (did I mention my hair is really thick?) of me sitting in a chair with my scalp feeling like it was literally on fire. That painful tingle was the feeling of some magical concoction burning the ethnicity out of my hair. That went on once every 3-6 months for 7 years.
Why? Because I never felt pretty with my hair natural. I often make the comparison that my hair without a straightener looks like someone shoved my fingers into an electrical socket. All of the popular girls at school at stick straight shiny hair that they could wear down any time they liked. All the lead characters on my favorite tv shows were the same way – even the black characters had their hair shiny and straight instead of natural. All the weather has to do is think about drizzling and my hair becomes a seeing hazard for anyone walking behind me. Like Tiana’s school is trying to preach – I felt like I was a distraction. Even now I prefer my hair straight over curly (though to be honest, that also has a lot to do with the fact it’s cooler temperature wise if it’s not all bunched up on my head).
It’s because the message given to Tiana, and all other little girls attending that school, isn’t a new one. For generations little black girls, and minorities all over, have been under pressure to “white-ify” themselves to fit the beauty ideals we are bombarded with on a daily basis. From simple hair treatments like relaxers and extensions to the extreme of skin bleaching treatments. It’s often insidious – the fact we see so few black females rocking natural hairstyles in mainstream media. It’s a subliminal campaign. But this – Tiana’s case? There’s nothing undercover about it. We are telling girls in primary school that their natural beauty isn’t good enough, that it’s a distraction, that it’s ugly. And that’s a problem.
So take a second before you put on your make-up today. Look in the mirror, just look, before you style your hair. Tiana Parker isn’t a distraction. She’s beautiful. So are you, right now – naked and natural and flawless. Own that. You have to because there are a generation of girls growing up who are being told differently and we have to show them the truth. That job starts with us. Let’s do better than this.