Shocked and appalled is what many felt when they read the story of Tiana Parker, a 7-year-old student from Oklahoma who was sent home in tears because administrators at her charter school said her “dreadlocks were a distraction,” “faddish” and “unacceptable.”
“A rule requiring an African-American child to ignore her own ethnic features is unfair and insulting,” wrote one commentator.
Dreadlocks, preferably called locks, dates back to ancient Egypt and is currently worn by different cultures across the globe. Despite natural hair becoming more acceptable, particularly in the U.S., many wonder why locks are viewed differently?
Seasoned loctician, Sujai Cobb, said there are strong misperceptions about the style.
“I’ve heard people say it’s a lazy style, or you don’t feel like washing it, it’s dirty and unkempt. I’ve heard these phrases for almost 20 years,” she said. “The irony is that I know many people who are very meticulous about their locks.”
There are non-Blacks who are fascinated by African-American’s natural hair and hairstyles but local locks expert, Thierry Baptiste believes the issue goes deeper than curiosity or misperceptions and one that is primarily fueled by Blacks.
“I am outraged that a child could be forced to repress their heritage if they want to get an education. What’s really sad is the fact that Black people are the ones enforcing this mental slavery upon our own youth. Granted some of us are too far gone to ever embrace Afrocentric heritage, but we shouldn’t plant seeds of self hate,” said Baptiste.
Carlton Waterhouse, a professor of Law at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law said hairstyle-based discrimination is a reflection of American society’s continued dominant set of racially-based, unquestioned social norms – an issue Blacks have wrestled with for quite some time.
“They are often a reflection of white privilege in the broader American society. That being white, in terms of cultural identification means acceptable. So white hairstyles are, as a given, acceptable,” said Waterhouse. “Wearing locks is unique and runs counter to what the dominant social norm is, which is wearing your hair straight, like a white person.”
He added that there is a notion by some African-Americans that some whites already have prejudiced views of Blacks – why rock the boat with hairstyles like locks?
People who wear locks have been stereotyped as non-conformists; angry and militant; people who desire to make a political statement about cultural identity; or associated with criminal activity.
“Lesbian was one that I heard when I first started my locks,” said Kimberly Stewart-Brinson, director for the office of diversity, access and achievement at IUPUI. “I ask people who have these views, ‘what do you know about locks or lock wearers?’”
Waterhouse said many who believe stereotypical or negative views are probably older African-Americans due to their experience with discrimination and desire for acceptance.
Cobb shared that when she initially decided to wear her hair natural, a family member, who was born in the mid-1920s, was ashamed that she would “walk around with a nappy head.” Stewart-Brinston was asked the same question.
But there are younger, conservative Blacks who also share strong beliefs against locks.
“They’re just nasty looking. People who have them are typically low income or wanting to be in touch with their ‘roots.’ You never see an executive CEO of a major company with them,” said Tiffany Bowens, who is in her early 30s. “You don’t do anything to them daily and it shows.”
She maintains that straight hair is not better than locks, but the question is acceptance. Bowens understands natural hair has gained some acceptance, but that locks are further on the natural hair spectrum and continue to have a negative connotation.
Waterhouse agrees that there is another side of the coin.
“To push it to another level, one could say ‘so you’re wearing locks. Does that mean you’re Blacker than me or you’re better than me because I have a relaxer,’” he asked.
Wendy Greene, a professor at Samford University in Alabama has written on the subject and said that although this discussion began because of what was going on in a Tulsa classroom, the issue is also carried into the boardroom.
“Your hair has nothing to do with your ability to perform a job well. This speaks to formal and informal grooming codes in the workplace. They end up having a real effect on one’s ability to maintain or obtain employment. Unfortunately there’s been very little protection under anti-discrimination laws as it relates to these kinds of codes and implementation of them,” said Greene. “In the courts, they look at it as employer prerogative to be able to construct the kind of workplace image they see fit.”
Vanessa Summers is a member of the Indiana State House of Representatives and has worn locks for 15 years. She said initially people questioned if she’d be able to wear her hair locked “downtown.” Non-Blacks were curious and wanted to touch her hair and Blacks weren’t ready for her choice of hairstyle. She ignored naysayers and let her political prowess shine.
“It’s like when the afro came out. Our parents were like ‘oh no, you’re not going to wear your hair looking like that,’” she laughed. “People are sometimes afraid of change.”
Many have accepted locks as a respectable, mainstream hairstyle. It is becoming visible on all levels of socioeconomic statuses. Greene said the key to further breaking down barriers of self image, ideals of Black beauty and judgment of self expression all boil down to education.
“People who are making judgments don’t really understand the time, resources and expense it takes to have natural or even straight hair,” said Greene. “It’s about educating people on (Blacks’) hair texture, the ways in which it’s best to wear our hair or even our health.”
Seven-year-old Tiana Parker’s family has chosen to take her education elsewhere. People across the nation rallied around the child who was asked to leave school because of her hair. The school board recently altered the controversial and exclusionary policy. At Recorder press time, Parker has not received a formal apology from the school.
Debra Simmons Wilson said no matter if hair is long, short, straight, curly, natural or locked, hair should always be well maintained.
The successful businesswoman enjoys how she’s able to express her creativity through her locked tresses and encourages people to be less judgemental about people who choose to do the same.
“India.Arie had a song that talked about ‘I am not my hair’ or her clothes. We are more than that yet people continue to perceive who a person is based on how they look. People who wear locks have to be aware of that, but that should not determine if we are going to be natural or not,” said Simmons Wilson.