The project to turn black Americans into “real citizens” seems never-ending, despite its racist and paternalistic roots, says Khadijah Costley White.
Over the last week, 7-year-old Tiana Parker has been breaking hearts around the nation. Booted out of her school for wearing her hair in locks (known to some as dreadlocks), news cameras rolled as little Tiana broke down in tears, explaining to a local news reporter that “they didn’t like my dreads.”
Bring on the outrage.
Throughout the country, righteous indignation erupted at the school policy that seemed to be punishing a black girl for being black, prohibiting her from wearing her hair as it naturally grew out of her head. There was a widespread response in the form of love and support sent to Tiana—for example, Dr. Yaba Blay put together a collection of letters and photos of women with locks from around the country (and co-signed by heralded author, Alice Walker).
There was anger directed especially at Deborah Brown, the principal of Deborah Brown Community School where Tiana was a student (yes, you read it correctly: She named the charter school after herself). Photos showing her sporting a wig that looks shockingly similar to the natural hairstyles banned by her own policies have been widely circulated and led to criticism about her seeming hypocrisy all over the Web.
And, across social media, many folks have explained how, and why, prohibitions against hair are particularly painful and problematic due to the historic devaluation of black women’s bodies. By Saturday night, Langston University, one of the school’s sponsors, had released a statement declaring that “that the policy in question should be changed.”
I have to admit, the fiery response to little Tiana’s plight took me by surprise. For some less familiar with the types of policing that black bodies undergo on a regular basis in school settings, I suppose such a strict approach might seem like it goes too far. But for anyone else, it’s pretty clear that this type of treatment is only a natural conclusion of punitive surveillance black children’s bodies have undergone in schools for a very long time. Schools, especially for black and brown youth, have become more and more like prisons by treating students like prisoners, and many of us have sat by and watched—why the outrage now that it’s about hair?
Rather than spaces for learning, it seems more appropriate to refer to modern urban educational settings as a form of prison conversion therapy, a process in which schools turn children into inmates (often denoted as the “school-to-prison pipeline”). One major example is the school uniform. Under the auspices of security, protection, and standardization, uniform requirements in city schools have risen significantly over the last three decades. Uniform advocates argue that the standardized clothing is best for children, giving them the ability to focus more on their learning than fashion, decreasing their violent gang activity, and making students more likely to behave professionally (it’s important to note that there is no real empirical evidence to support any of these claims).
On the other hand, violating such rules, even for parents who simply can’t afford the costly robes, have lead to suspension and even expulsion. Clothing violations only adds to the long list of the types of absurd infractions for which black children get punished, and more and more frequently arrested, in schools everyday—from science experiments to tardiness. (Meanwhile, no one seems to be keeping nearly a close enough eye on the armed officers who are sent to “protect” these kids and end up tazing and molesting them instead).
In reality, much of this surveillance is connected to a long history of racist paternalism that has always questioned black folks’ ability to raise and care for their own children. Throughout the 20th century, people concerned about the plight of Negro families implemented more and more intrusive measures to monitor and punish their behavior, resulting in higher rates of child removal and incarceration than their white peers (for the very same infractions). Philosopher Charles Mills famously argued that a society built upon racial caste would always mark its black citizens as unruly, uncivilized, and in need of taming.
Echoes of this type of ideology permeate even black-led institutions at the higher education level. In the last few years, respectability policing at black colleges like Hampton and Morehouse has led to policies that expressly forbid lock hairstyles and gender non-conforming clothing (contributing, some argue, to violent attacks on gay and transgendered students). Unlike their white counterparts, historically black colleges and universities continue to create lengthy sets of behavioral dictums for their students, such as sex-based residential segregation, chapel attendance, limited social interactions between male and female students, and curfews. Compare that to the way other young adults at the top tier universities are treated and you might start to see the point. Why should anyone be surprised that Deborah Brown is following their lead?
Now, I won’t go into a lengthy diatribe about the irony of constantly questioning the parenting abilities of a group of people who have served disproportionately as caretakers for white children across socioeconomic divisions. But I do want to make two general points here.
First, the massive rise of charter schools in communities where people of color predominate is not an accident. Despite their strong proclaimed commitment to the tenets of discipline and accountability, these schools are largely left unsupervised and under-evaluated. They offer large school districts an opportunity to unload children for less money, but such monetary exchanges make them more vulnerable to fraud and show no clear advantage to standard public schools. If the trends in Philadelphia are any indicator, public neighborhood schools will soon be entirely replaced by educational institutions that increasingly depend on rigid and punitive codes that seem more intent on teaching children how to obey their arbitrary rules than how to read and write. Schools that treat black children like their very existence is in constant need of repair.
Second, Tiana is not an exceptional case. She is the natural conclusion of a school caste system that deems black children’s bodies as always threatening, dangerous, wild, and in need of correction. There is lots of evidence that suggests black youth compared to other groups, for instance, white children, are faring better. They are less likely to use drugs, develop substance abuse disorders, or know someone who carries a gun than their white peers. But their schools are, by far, less funded and more policed. Significantly, studies have shown that the expectations that we have of children are far more important in predicting their ability to succeed (or fail) in school. So why do we, especially those of us who are black Americans, keep permitting and embracing this treatment of our kids as presumed guilty?
The project to turn black Americans into real citizens seems never-ending, despite its deleterious, racist and paternalistic roots. In schools, this is regularly reflected in the ways that administrations limit (or completely deny) student self-expression and self-actualization. For black women, the mandated straightening of little Tiana’s hair symbolized racial conformity and inflicted self-hate, but it was also demonstrative of a wider attack on the very fact of blackness.
What does that leave us with when it comes to schools full of black and brown youth? Too many Tianas to count and far too many wasted futures.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.