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  • From the Editorial Board: Tangled Discrimination in Schools: Binding Hair to Control Student Identity
  • Torrie K. Edwards

School discipline policy is not implemented equitably in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2014), Black students represent 16% of the student population, but represent 32–42% of students suspended or expelled; in contrast, White students make up over half of the student population, and yet only 31–40% of White students are suspended (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). In total, Black students are suspended and expelled more frequently than their White peers; only 4.6% of White students are suspended, while 16.4% of Black students are suspended. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2014) not only reports on racial disproportionality in discipline policy implementation, but also gender disproportionality. For example, its data show that boys make up nearly three of every four students suspended or expelled; additionally, although students with disabilities only make up 12% of student enrollment, they are subject to 25% of school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement. Significant literature has explored the broad impacts of discipline policy disproportionality on students of color (e.g., lost instructional time, school-to-prison pipeline, etc.), but few have focused on the impact of specific discipline policies. One of these specific policies that has not been studied extensively is dress code, which often regulates clothing, jewelry, and other choices in student appearance. The focus in this editorial is on dress code related to hair, hairstyles and accessories, a topic which has been a focus as of late on social media and in the news, as several recent school-based events have shown clear instances of hair discrimination impacting students of color in particular.

In December 2018, a Black high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced to choose between maintaining his hairstyle and competing in a wrestling match. Under the guise of following a dress code policy, the referee publicly cut off the student’s locs before allowing him to compete. This event may seem extreme, yet public schools regularly control hair, hairstyles, and hair accessories through presumably less public dress code policies. Rampant in the news media are stories of students and young people being refused entry to (Kai, 2018) or sent home from school (Harris, J., 2016; Jackman, 2018; Lazar, 2017), having their natural hair cut off (Whelan, Jr., 2018), being threatened with disciplinary action (Pulliam, 2016; Taketa, 2020), or being removed from their extracurricular activities for hair styles or accessories deemed unacceptable in mainstream White culture (Lattimore, 2017). These examples underscore the politics of hair management (Banks, 1997) and the dominant narrative around hair that hooks (1989b) describes in which “black people, and especially black women.. .are not acceptable as we are.. .” (p. 5). Although Banks (1997) found the messaging of hair management to reflect experiences of power, choice, and/or self-hatred, this message is unquestionably, according to Oyedemi (2016), a form of cultural violence. This cultural violence is enacted on student bodies through hair regulations in dress code policies, and, until very recently was permitted in every state in the country. [End Page 53]

In 2019, three states wrote legislation addressing hair discrimination in school: California, New York, and New Jersey. California’s law is the first of its kind. Passed in early 2019, this law took effect January 1, 2020. Formally Senate Bill No. 188, the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act) is “an act to amend Section 212.1 of the Education Code, and to amend Section 12926 of the Government Code, relating to discrimination” (CROWN Act, 2019). Specifically, it “adds traits historically associated with race to the state’s list of classifications protected from discrimination” (Griffith, 2019). SB-188 explicitly protects afros, braids, natural hair, twists, and locs in both employment practices and educational policy, and is intentional in outlining the history and impact of racial discrimination in public arenas. In particular, Section 1b of the Act notes that Whiteness (e.g., European features and mannerisms) often guides societal understandings of professionalism by linking European features to professionalism; moreover, it names hair...


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