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“Then I awoke and dug that if I dreamed natural dreams of being a natural woman doing what a woman does when she’s natural, I would have a revolution.”
More than one-third of Black women do not use chemical straightening products to alter the texture of their hair—a growing trend that is extending to Black girls. Last week, millions watched as 7-year-old Tiana Parker cried after being pulled out of The Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa, Oklahoma because “dreadlocks” and “afros” are, by the school’s policy, “unacceptable.” Tiana, whose locs were neat and decorated with a pink bow, was presented as a high achieving student who was neither a threat to the school nor to public safety. She did not engage in a disruptive tantrum, nor were her little hands placed in handcuffs; but this was yet another egregious example of how Black girls are being pushed out of our schools and rendered vulnerable to dropout, victimization, and participation in underground economies.
As repulsive as this school’s policy was to those of us who embrace our natural hair, there is a more serious and potentially damaging element to this policy. More than one in 10 Black girls have experienced an out of school suspension. Four in ten Black girls do not graduate from high school. Black girls are more likely to experience exclusionary discipline (i.e., suspensions and expulsions) in schools, and the rate at which they are assigned to residential placement in the juvenile justice system is greater than for all other girls. While there are academic successes worth celebrating, the underbelly of our discussions about school pushout and school-to–confinement pathways is the invisibility of Black girls and the unique ways in which they are impacted by schools that function as overseers in a repressive structure that too often undermines the scholastic aptitude of Black students.
When Frantz Fanon wrote about the “colonized mind” in the late 1960s, he addressed more than just how Black people have internalized ideas about what they lack. He also addressed the socialization component of this condition, where these ideas are spread through popular culture. His argument was that racists only appear as “normal” if they exist in a dominant culture of racism that reinforces ideas about the inferiority of Black people.
Applying a gender lens to this analysis, one could argue the same. In order for sexists to exist with a sense of normalcy, they must dwell in a popular culture of sexism. Combine the two, and stir in Caroline Hodges Persell’s idea about schools functioning as institutions that reproduce the dominant cultures and structures of society, and you have a school culture with a venomous bite that is particularly poisonous to Black girls.
The board and administrative team for The Deborah Brown School is Black, which signals that this policy might be rooted in something other than the traditional racial bias that has produced school policies and practices that have historically negatively affected Black students. According to Dereca Blackmon, a nationally recognized facilitator of workshops on race, gender, and class, this may be a manifestation of internalized oppression.
“Internalized oppression is so insidious because it’s often based in a lack of awareness of how we’ve experienced oppression in the first place,” Ms. Blackmon said in an interview for this article. “Living in a culture that is predominantly White, we internalize messages that say our hair should be straight. Over time, we interpret that to mean straight hair is good, appropriate, and acceptable. If we lived in a culture where our natural hair textures were dominant, we would never make such as equation.”
While the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus is now seeking to intervene in the case of Tiana Parker, there are many other girls who are told by key stakeholders in their lives that they are inferior or unwanted in the school for one reason or another. In a recent interview that I conducted with a Black girl in a California juvenile detention facility, she discussed feeling distrustful of other girls at her school, which led to the majority of her conflict. Her admitted distrust of her sisters, she admitted, was a trigger for fights, which led to her suspensions, arrests, and confinement.
Other detained Black girls spoke with me about being a “problem child” or having to deal with teachers who were “not patient” with them when they spoke out against something they perceived to be unjust. These, and other examples, signal that our work to improve the educational experiences of other girls must address the messages they have internalized about the value of Black femininity and the opportunities they have to bring their whole selves to the learning experience. Too many have learned to be hostile toward one another, and to dwell in a state of self-loathing. Their behaviors are often the result of years of being told they are not worthy. For many of these girls, this is the foundation for why they act out, and to challenge the adults who present themselves as authority figures.
Interrupting the school-to-confinement pathways for our girls ultimately requires a commitment to dismantle the school-based laws, policies and practices that criminalize children for negative behaviors. However, it must also include efforts to address the unconscious biases and feelings of inferiority that occasionally manifest in how we deal with each other. Our challenge is to think deeper and to act more comprehensively toward the uplift of our girls—at school, at home, and in their own minds and bodies—so that they no longer see their beauty, worth, and contributions as disposable. At a time when Black girls are consistently being pushed out of school, it is increasingly important to organize against the school policies and practices that marginalize them from their learning environments.
When asked what she thought about being pulled out of school, Tiana cried into the camera and said, “I think they should have let me have my dreads.”
That’s just the beginning. Our schools owe Tiana—and other girls like her—more than just an opportunity to sport natural hair. They are owed a right to learn with dignity and to avoid any denigration of their beauty in the process. Our schools must cease to be places where too many Black girls learn that they’re not good enough as they are. Instead, every learning environment should be a place where they learn to celebrate their intellectual prowess and from which they emerge as Black women who are prepared to thrive.
Dr. Monique W. Morris is a Soros Justice Fellow and the co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute. She is the author of Race, Gender, and the School to Prison Pipeline: Expanding our Discussion to Include Black Girls as well as the forthcoming Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-first Century . Follow her on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.