Over a century ago, W.E.B Du Bois wrote one of the most seminal texts to date on the Black experience. Published in the spring of 1903, The Souls of Black Folk, empowered us with the language to articulate double-consciousness and provided a model for understanding Black identity and life.
One hundred and ten years later, Du Bois’ question remains relevant to the American Black experience. It elucidates the reality that Black identity and life in the U.S. is still treated as a subculture, that it must be apologized for or reconciled by means of systematic miseducation.Tiana Parker’s recent experience at a Tulsa, Oklahoma charter school exemplifies this unfortunate reality. The 7-year-old’s parents removed her from Deborah Brown Community School when the school demanded she change her locs. The school’s dress code prohibits hairstyles like locs, afros and mohawks, deeming them “faddish” and not “presentable.” The handbook also outlines what is unacceptable attire for parents, which includes bra-less clothing and sagging pants.
Tiana’s victimization reminds us that we still have significant intraracial healing to address. On the one hand, the politics of respectability clearly continue to run rampant when a predominantly Black school subscribes to institutional discrimination and sends a child home in tears due to her appearance. On the other hand, even when we think we are defending ourselves against the perception that we should take up white-centered values to form our Black identities, we tend to empower these white-centered values by trying to prove our beliefs as worthy.
For example, many find it necessary to teach that Black hair in natural styles is not dirty. Tiana’s hair, whether loc’d or not, is her own. Neither she, her parents, nor anyone else should feel compelled to convince others her hair is clean, well kept or well cared for. Presenting Tiana’s experience as a teachable moment regarding the myths of Black hair care undermines the core issue: whether she has the right to wear her hair as she pleases.
Moreover, the disrespect shown Tiana and her family reminds us that racism within the Black community operates to suppress Black identity by embracing the ideal of whiteness. White people who beat the drums of white supremacy are no longer needed because those beliefs are already engrained within us.
Similar to the ugly history of American Indian boarding schools, where the objective was to “kill the Indian and save the man within”, systematic miseducation aims to “erase and replace.” In the case of Black children, by killing their desire to express a proud cultural identity that is undeniably Black and replacing it with white standards, society primes children to accept Black stereotypes and assimilate as a means to avoid being labeled.
Schools like Deborah Brown, Horizon Science Academy in Lorian, Ohio and even institutions of higher learning like Hampton University adhere to this history of assimilation through discipline and education that teaches students they are a problem. They impart the understanding that one is more disciplined if their hair is straight or weaved or styled “conservatively.” And they indoctrinate the view that children will have better chances of getting ahead without culturally identifiable Black hair, because it is contrary to presentable styling. In other words, only “presentable” people deserve to get ahead.
Furthermore, the continued denigration of Black hairstyles by educational institutions reminds us that oppression often begins in the classroom. Young Black girls are particularly oppressed. Policies that single-out Black girls for how we wear our hair drill into us that we are objects of display. It teaches that our bodies are a problem to be fixed and should be regulated for the sake of those who choose to look upon us so they will like what they see.
Fortunately, we are in a position where we can counter the politics of respectability, stand up for young girls like Tiana, hold institutions accountable for their mistreatment of our children and support entities that combat their oppressive education. By empowering children to see themselves as the solution to dismantling internalized racism and eliminating the desire to embrace whiteness, we can progressively breathe new life into the relationship between education and Black identity.