Dear Visible Man,
I was recently reading a news article in which a public school banned a little black girl from school for wearing braids. I was surprised that public schools would do so given the focus on diversity in education today. I was even more shocked to learn that this was a school organized for black students. I thought this was the action of an ignorant white school official.
I had no idea until learning today that the person creating this ridiculous rule was black. I grew up during the strife of the civil rights movement. I am concerned as to how this will impact the next generation. I find this very confusing. What do you think about this?
Lee, age 64, Kirkland, WA
I appreciate your writing. Although you did not indicate the basis of your information, I will assume that you may be referring to the recent news story arising from Tulsa, Oklahoma. In this story a 7-year-old African-American girl Tiana was banned from school for wearing dreads. The public school that you referred to is Deborah Brown Community School, a charter school founded by an African-American woman named Deborah Brown.
The school was created for the purpose of educating a predominantly black student population. In reviewing the news article of the Associated Press, the school had developed a policy banning dreadlocks, Afros, Mohawks and other “faddish” hairstyles declaring them unacceptable and “potential health hazards.”
The furor that erupted from this created new stories and responses from around the world. The school ultimately apologized and rescinded its policy. The parents transferred the child to another public school. The news article concluded with an interview with and acknowledgement that the 7 year old had received thousands of emails and phone calls of support from around the world. When asked by the reporter how she felt, Tiana replied she feels “cared about.” Truly, this is a heartbreaking news story that has a happy ending. Did we miss something?
Yes, it is heartbreaking to learn that a 7-year old child could be barred from school for wearing dreadlocks. And it was correct that the school official should remove the rule banning the wearing of those hairstyles. And yes, it is heartwarming that thousands of emails and phone calls of support from around the world were received. Again, did we miss something?
Although race may be a factor, the underlining issue is fear (and not race). The real issue is fear of the unknown, the fear of doing something different. Understanding that charter schools are intended for the task of educating a predominantly black student population that the classic public school system has failed, I don’t believe that Ms. Brown’s commitment was in the wrong place.
As stated in the news article, at the same time, another charter school, Horizon Science Academy in Lorain, OH, implemented a similar policy. It too rescinded the policy following the backlash of criticism received by the Deborah Brown Community School. In its response, the dean of students at Horizon stated, “our word choice was a mistake.”
Word choice? I am sure that Ms. Deborah Brown or the dean of the other charter school did not wake up one morning, jumping out of bed stating, “Hmm… let’s develop a rule banning wearing dreadlocks.” I believe what happened is that Ms. Brown and other like-minded school officials are no different from many of us and were simply following the “script.”
The script?? Yes, the script of the larger group i.e. the traditionalist segment, which believes that in order for African-Americans to market themselves and be successful in the professional or corporate world, they must want to “fit in” and achieve the look of acceptability that professional or corporate culture is seeking. It is perceivable that the “groupthink” believes that the wearing of dreadlocks, Afros, Mohawks and other “faddish” hairstyles will impact either the ability to gain employment or upward movement on the corporate ladder. It is this perception that led to the implementation of the hard lined banning of such “faddish hairstyles.”
Let’s follow the process of the “script” and in doing so deconstruct how fear, using shame, is being viewed.
· First, there is a segment of the larger group i.e. society (professional & corporate culture) applying external pressure, telling another segment of the larger group i.e. community (“traditionalist” African-Americans), that “your hair, if dreadlocked or faddish, is unacceptable and has potential health hazards.”
· Second, there is a segment of larger group i.e. community (“traditionalist” African-Americans) applying external pressure, telling another segment of the larger group i.e. family (parents) that “your hair, if dreadlocked or faddish, is unacceptable and has potential health hazards.”
· Third, there is are traditionalist community mores in the form of school officials applying the external pressure and delivering the message, telling individuals (students) that “your hair, if dreadlocked or faddish, is unacceptable and has potential health hazards.”
The goal of the script is to enforce the will of the larger group i.e. community (African-American traditionalists). This is done by introducing the concept of shaming the individual. So rather than it being an error (i.e. “our word choice was a mistake,”), it is, in reality, a specific strategy that sacrifices the psychological wellness of the individual for the perceived good of the group. This strategy has been utilized throughout generations to secure and maintain control over the group.
In this situation, the “script,” built on a destructive foundation (internalized shame), collapsed. The larger group of African-American traditionalists, which depends on the loyalty and submissiveness of its members and requires parents to install internalized shame into their children, must instead must now beat a hasty retreat due to the unwillingness of one set of parents (Tiana’s parents) who refuse to reinforce the “internalized shame game” upon their 7-year-old child. The following uproar in the media exposes the strategy which of course, is now explained away by saying “our word choice was a mistake.”
I believe that the larger group, the traditionalists, has good intentions. However, there must be a concern for the outcome of those good intentions. The traditionalists, in their zeal to prepare a younger generation to enter what may a hostile workplace environment, failed to take into account the damage that they may be inflicting as they seek to internalize shame within the individual. In this situation, the outcome was traumatic for a 7-year old child.
Is racism a factor? No doubt it is. The traditionalists believe that the African-American individual‘s physical presentation is just as key to getting ahead in a racially hostile environment as their hard work. However, the traditionalists are out of step as the young people of today are insisting upon the right to come to the workplace displaying their self-identity and wanting to be evaluated on their performance and individual merit.
The consequences of shaming behavior sends messages which reinforces young men and women to reject themselves by seeing their natural hair as dirty or unclean. In doing so, these messages also impact their self-concept, self-esteem and self-confidence and consequently create the unconscious demand to seek other standards in order to obtain the holy grail of “acceptability.”
Acceptability? It is recommended that the traditionalists of the African-American community explore the psychological damage that was also inflicted upon themselves by their parents as they sought the Holy Grail i.e. “acceptability by others.” If indeed the “traditionalist” has arrived at the Holy Grail, then they must seek to answer the following questions:
· Who am I? Who (or what) have I become?
· If others reject me, how will I feel about me?
· How do I feel about me? Do I accept me?
· How do I show that I accept me?
The day of the traditionalist is fading. Yes, there remain holdouts such as the dean of the business school for Hampton University (a historical black university). This dean has defended and left intact a 12- year old ban on dreadlocks and cornrows for male students, asserting, “the look is not businesslike.” This dean is an icon of the past, an era in which that generation chose to live in fear and in doing sacrificed the psychological wellness of its children.
There is a new day coming, a new sun rising over the horizon. As the traditionalists pass on, they will be replaced by a generation who are willing to “live with fear” and not in fear. The upcoming generation has an opportunity to grant itself the right that the previous generation, living in fear, was unable to do so. This is the right to create one’s own path, instead of walking the “same old road” that was designed for the group. Hopefully this younger generation will learn from the mistakes of their elders.
This younger generation may decide to arrive at the workplace wearing dreadlocks, Afros, Mohawks and other “faddish” hairstyles. Unlike the generation before them, they will not have to sacrifice their souls or the wellness of their young. Rather when they leave the workplace, they will exit with the psychological self, intact, self assured and well loved.
“A wise person learns from his/her mistakes, makes corrections and finds the right path; the foolish one will continue without direction, never finding the road even when it is in front of his/her face.”
“Ten Flashes of Light for the Journey of Life”
The Visible Man