NEW ORLEANS — Dreadlocks, afros and braids are among the hairstyles cemented within black culture, but students often find themselves battling schools for autonomy over these hairstyles. With this in mind, students at Xavier University of Louisiana are pushing for the acceptance of all hair styles, looking to address society’s preconceptions of people of color based on their hair.
This year’s Mister and Miss Xavier collaborated with the university’s Student Government Association to launch an “I am not my hair” movement online, which saw students sharing photos of their hairstyles and the stories they experienced due to their hair.
Kelsey Green, a biology and premedicine senior selected as the 82nd Miss Xavier, said Sept. 14 the movement is meant to uplift people of color who struggle with their hairstyles in their personal and professional lives. She and other students have pointed out several instances through the years where schools have disciplined students because of their hairstyles.
Most recently in the New Orleans area, the private Christ the King Elementary School in Terrytown refused to teach two 6th graders because their hair extensions violated a new dress code policy that only permitted students to wear their “natural” hairstyles. It all started when video footage of Faith Fennidy, 11, in tears at the school gained national attention in August. The school was put in a harsh spotlight as critics pointed out the historical trend of black students facing more school discipline than their white peers.
The school eventually rescinded its policy. The families of the two girls dropped their lawsuit against the school Sept. 10, according to court records. Even so, The Times-Picayune http://www.nola.com confirmed Oct. 1 with an assistant for attorney Inemesit O’Boyle of the Chehardy Sherman Williams law firm that the girls have enrolled at different schools.
The Christ the King issue was the second time in August that a Southern private school received attention for hair policies that some deemed discriminatory toward black students. On Aug. 13, a 6-year-old boy in Florida was turned away from his Christian school because he had dreadlocks. The video of his father’s interaction with the school also went viral.
The issue can also be seen in higher education and across different parts of the world. A former University of Holy Cross nursing student told WDSU in May she felt forced to leave the school after school officials gave her a hard time over her natural hairstyle. In September, a 12-year-old Rastafarian boy won a case against his school in the United Kingdom after the school banned him because of his dreadlocks, according to a report by the BBC.
A Kentucky high school in 2016 explored revisions to its own hair policy after some parents complained the policy prohibited many of the hairstyles favored by black students with natural hair, according to a report by the Courier-Journal. The newspaper stated the policy banned afros, dreadlocks, mohawks and cornrows on students. The hairstyle issue even traces back to employer’s prohibitions against beards, which made its way to federal court in the 1990s, according to a report by the New York Times.
Scholars at Xavier pointed out Louisiana is no stranger to enforcing hair laws against black people. Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir, associate history professor at Xavier, said Louisiana enacted the Tignon law in the 18th Century because the government wanted women of color to tie up their hair to disguise their beauty. Although the government figured the Tignon would make the women ugly, Sinegal-DeCuir said black women adorned the head wraps in beads and feathers and other designs to illustrate their individuality.
The black community’s versatility with their hair can also be seen when other cultures appropriate their hairstyles, Sinegal-DeCuir added.
“The Kardashians are doing all of these synthetical things to their hair and it’s beautiful, but if you have the same little black girl with braids in her hair it’s not beautiful because it’s not accepted. She looks different — they look trendy — but she looks ghetto, and that’s a social stereotype that I think everyone has to get over,” Sinegal-DeCuir said.
Sinegal-DeCuir stressed that braids and extensions are protective hairstyles for natural hair, which isn’t necessarily straight hair for people of color. She said a Caucasian girl with extensions wouldn’t get singled out like a black girl because black natural hair is “all types of hair” in the black community. Their hair can “be any color or grain, so it’s really hard to even determine what” the phrase natural hair means in an inclusive setting.
Students and staff at Xavier hope schools will address the issue rather than hoping they can “hush up about it” after media reports go away, said Tia Smith, head of Xavier’s Mass Communication department. Smith’s research focuses on media representations including women, gender, race and sexuality.
“You’re not just your hair, but the hair is very important in our community, especially when it comes to storytelling,” Smith said.
Smith said she wants to see how Catholic schools like Christ the King educate their administrators, faculty and students around the meaning of diversity, in order to “go back to the true Catholic values” and return to why parents chose the school in the first place. She couldn’t help but reflect “how traumatic” Faith’s experience must have been, adding that instance of being “singled out” can make Faith feel “less than human or made to feel that she didn’t belong.”
“I’m not Catholic, but the essence I think of Catholic education is inclusiveness and not being judgmental,” Smith said. “If that is the essence of it and you’re not practicing what it is, then that’s a problem and it traumatizes students.”
Xavier’s scholars and students have said the actions taken by the families of the two Christ the King students were “heroic.” Green said she hopes the girls will travel to Xavier’s campus not only to share their experience, but also to learn from Xavier’s students. Sinegal-DeCuir added the girls would be able to interact with other black women who have diverse hairstyles and experiences as well at Xavier.
“You’re not out here alone, it’s not a lonely battle that you’re fighting. We have your back and we got ya’ll,” Smith said.