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This Black History Month, Let’s Focus on What’s in Our Students’ Heads, Not Their Hair

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Young afro man with dreadlocks wearing striped t-shirt

DeAndre Arnold probably did not intend to make news headlines during his senior year in high school. But he did, and just recently he walked on the red carpet at the Oscars as the guest of superstars Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade and filmmaker Matthew Cherry — all because he was suspended from his high school near Houston and banned from graduation because he wore his hair in dreadlocks, a style popularized by Rastafarians like Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley.

Walking on the red carpet is an unforgettable experience for Arnold, but it should have never gone this far.

As an education professor, parent and someone who wears his hair in the same style, I understand that this focus on black people’s natural hair can have a devastating impact on students’ self-esteem and their academic abilities. Arnold, for his part, handled it with grace. But this example shows now more than ever that we need to focus on what’s inside our students’ heads and celebrate what’s adorning them.

Fortunately, state legislators across the country are introducing bills, called CROWN Acts, that protect students and employees from discrimination based on their hairstyles. Perhaps for this year’s Black History Month, we need to be better educated about how hairstyles have been used to resist oppression and exult black identity. We all need to recognize the unfortunate historical legacy of policing black people’s bodies, and to the point — all people’s bodies.

Unfortunately, this is not a new development: the U.S. Army, several American businesses, and schools in the past have attempted to prohibit the expression of black hair — a historical bias as old as America itself. What messages are black students — or for that matter, all students — receiving about culture, identity and beauty through such policies?

What happened to DeAndre Arnold falls into the category of disciplinary actions disproportionately leveled against black children. Black students have been penalized because of their natural hairstyles for years across the country, and in the most extreme examples, some have actually been assaulted by school personnel.

Even a cursory understanding of American history will reveal that cultural representation for black people — via dress, hairstyles and jewelry — has always been an act of resistance. Afros, naturals, cornrows and dreadlocks are all expressions of natural black hair — and have been adopted and imitated by others. Fashionistas, for instance, may recall Bo Derek’s cornrows in the ’80s.

This focus on hair and other cultural markers must stop in schools. It’s important to understand that black cultural values and identity are often erased or subtracted in classrooms, where black students — as well as other students of color and students from ethnic or religious identities — often do not have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in curriculum, and in those who teach them.

So, whenever a black student has an opportunity to express his or her cultural identity, it is tragic when that opportunity is denied. Arnold, by all accounts, made accommodations to adhere to the policy by pulling his hair up, as I often do for convenience. The position of his school, however, has negated his efforts to “meet them halfway.”

When students are told that their natural hair is a discipline problem, it affects their self-esteem and can lead to a negative view of their own racial and ethnic identity. It also sends a message to their peers that natural black hair is abhorrent and shameful, For many black people, particularly black women, this is a source of stress and social pressure that many of their colleagues do not have to deal with.

If we are to forge a society that judges us by the content of our character, it is imperative that we eliminate policies that penalize students and workers because of the texture of their hair — and instead celebrate those differences.

I hope that this attention on Arnold and others like him will result in a change in policy rules so students can go and learn, without the added pressure of having to conform to a cultural context that requires them to subjugate their proud history and identity. We will be a better nation for it.

Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor and associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach for the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.

A version of this op-ed appeared in Psychology Today, Austin American Statesman, Corpus Christi Caller Times, Lubbock Avalanche Journal, and the Houston Chronicle.

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