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Luther Standing Bear first stepped inside of Carlisle Indian School at age 11 in 1879. The Oglala Sioux youth would later write in his memoir that he entered the boarding school, along with other indigenous children, “merely to show my people that I was brave enough to leave the reservation and go East, not knowing what it meant and not caring.”
What it meant was assimilation — speaking English only or else, donning Western attire so uncomfortable it hurt, and taking a European name at random. But when their interpreter told the students they would also have to cut their hair, they objected. Luther recalled the reasoning of one classmate: “If I am to learn the ways of the white man, I can do it just as well with my hair on.”
The other boys agreed, but they didn’t have a choice. One day, a group of white men trotted onto campus carrying large chairs. They sat the boys down and shaved their heads, one by one.
The newly bald Luther’s eyes filled with tears.
“I felt that I was no more Indian, but would be an imitation of a white man,” he wrote.
Nearly 140 years have passed since the inaugural group of students at Carlisle Indian School had their heads shaved, yet schools across the nation continue to enforce dress codes that target the natural or traditional hairstyles of students of color. Just this past Sunday, the trustees of the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, near Boston, suspended a dress code policy that banned hair extensions, including the braided variety that many black girls sport. The school repeatedly gave 15-year-old twins Mya and Deanna Cook detention for wearing the hairdo, ousting Deanna from the track team because of the policy. According to the girls’ mother, Colleen Cook, school officials threatened them with suspension as well.
“All the little black children were marched down for a hair inspection, whether they had braids or not, and asked, ‘Are those extensions?’ ‘Are your braids real or not?’” Cook told television station Fox 25 Boston.
If Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey hadn’t sent a letter to Mystic Valley calling its dress code discriminatory, it’s unclear if the school would have halted the policy. Before Healey’s involvement, Alexander J. Dan, Mystic Valley’s interim school director, issued a statement about the controversial dress code. He explained that the school serves students of diverse ethnic backgrounds and income levels.
“We purposefully promote equity by focusing on what unites our students and reducing visible gaps between those of different means,” he said. “Our policies, including those governing student appearance and attire, foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion, or materialism. Our policy on hair extensions, which tend to be very expensive, is consistent with, and a part of, the educational environment that we believe is so important to our students’ success.”
This statement is tone deaf at best and deceptive at worst. Braided extensions aren’t merely a fashion trend, but a style that generations of African Americans have embraced. Likening them to, say, man rompers or bucket bags misses the mark. And while braiding one’s real hair may only last for a couple of days or weeks, synthetic braids last for a few months. This low-maintenance hairdo — which has afforded scores of black girls the chance to wash and go rather than wash, blow dry, and flat iron — has likely given the Cook girls one less thing to worry about as they excel in both class and athletics.
The idea that the cost of braided extensions promotes inequity also falls far short of reality. Since braids are a cultural staple, many blacks know how to style their hair this way, extensions and all, with no help from a salon. It’s not hyperbole to say that the average African American has a cousin, aunt, sister, or mother who knows how to braid. And those without ties to an amateur braider still find it economical to pay a salon $200 for extensions that will last for a few months. That’s because they might spend several hundred dollars cumulatively on salon visits for another style during the same timeframe.
But Mystic Valley Regional Charter School’s dress code didn’t just single out braided extensions; it also forbade students from wearing their hair “more than two inches in thickness or height,” a prohibition that overwhelmingly targets students with afros or big curls. It’s curious how a dress code that bars students from wearing their hair in the texture that grows out of their heads promotes equity. Telling black students they can’t wear their hair naturally is no less white supremacist than the Carlisle Indian School officials who forced indigenous boys to shave their heads. The school’s founder, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, proudly adopted the motto “kill the Indian, save the man.” Prohibiting a black child from wearing their hair in a natural or traditional hairstyle sends a similar message, and Deanna Cook picked up on it.
“It makes me feel like my culture and my hair was not important enough to be represented around the school,” she told Fox 25 Boston.
Her father, Aaron Cook, told the Boston Globe that the trustees’ decision to suspend the policy is a “step in the right direction.” But he fears that the detentions and suspensions students racked up because of the dress code will remain on their records. Nationally, schools suspend black boys and girls at significantly higher rates than other students. Even one suspension increases a student’s chance of dropping out and entering the criminal justice system. As a result, California lawmakers are now considering legislation to ban suspensions for willful defiance, the gray area infractions that include talking back, disobeying orders, or flouting dress code policies. A school truly focused on equity would take the measures necessary to prevent more students from ending up on the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead, Mystic Valley Regional Charter decided to line up students for hair inspections, Colleen Cook said.
Unfortunately, Mystic Valley is not the only school that has recently disciplined students of color for their hairstyles. On Friday, a Florida TV station reported that an administrator at a private Christian school told a black teen with an afro that her hair violated school rules. Eleventh grader Jenesis Johnson told WCTV that an assistant principal at North Florida Christian said “Your hair is extreme and faddish and out of control. It’s all over the place.”
Contrary to what the administrator reportedly told Jenesis, Afro-textured hair is not any more of a fad than black people are. Both have been around for millennia. But African Americans have historically been taught to loathe their natural locks. Political activist and fugitive Assata Shakur recalled in her autobiography how in the 1960s she “became aware of a whole new generation of black women hiding under wigs. Ashamed of their hair — if they had any left.”
Today, more African Americans than ever have embraced their kinks, curls, and waves. They’ve opted against using harsh chemicals and extreme heat to conform to Western beauty standards. Telling black kids their hair is a distraction, a fad, and unruly serves no purpose other than to humiliate these children and instill shame in them about their blackness.
But it’s not just black students who bear the brunt of discriminatory dress code policies. Young Native American boys continue to be targets. In 2015, a Utah school told the parents of then-7-year-old Jakobe Sanden that the boy’s mohawk, a traditional Seneca hairstyle, had caused a distraction. School officials asked Jakobe’s parents to cut his hair because his classmates weren’t accustomed to the look. The boy’s father, Gary Sanden, balked at the suggestion.
“I told the superintendent I was in no means going to cut his hair because it’s a symbol of who we are,” he said.
The Sandens had to get a letter from tribal officials stating the importance of mohawks in Seneca culture to resolve the matter. A Texas family had a similar experience in 2014 after a school turned away their Navajo kindergartener on his first day of school because of his long hair. A letter from the Navajo Nation seemingly squashed the dispute. But the psychic damage children suffer during these ordeals likely lingers.
Jenesis Johnson’s school has offered to refund her tuition for next semester if she won’t change her hair, her mother said. If true, the school is saying they have such little regard for the student that her hair matters more than the role she plays in their community. Conform or leave.
Luther Standing Bear tried to conform. He became a model student at Carlisle Indian School and later recruited other Native Americans as students. But he concluded in his book, Land of the Spotted Eagle, that he could never truly assimilate to the white man’s “mode of existence.”
The man who once feared a haircut had turned him into an imitation white man declared himself “incurably” Indian. He realized he should’ve never been forced to assimilate.
“White men seem to have difficulty realizing that people who live differently from themselves still might be traveling the upward and progressive road of life,” he said.
As schools in the 21st century continue to ostracize and punish students of color for their appearance, Luther Standing Bear’s comment still stands. After all, an afro, synthetic braids, a mohawk, and long hair all have one thing in common: They can’t stop a child from learning. But small-minded people sure can.