Yesterday morning news broke in Orlando about Vanessa VanDyke, a 12-year-old student at Faith Christian Academy who is in danger of being expelled because of her hair. VanDyke has a head full of natural hair that she has worn in a large blown-out ‘fro style for the last year, but recently, because she complained of children teasing and bullying her, her hair has become a problem. Like many private schools, FCA has a fairly stringent dress code policy that includes restrictions on hair. According to the policy, “Hair must be a natural color and must not be a distraction to include but not be limited to: mohawks, shaved designs, rat tails, etc.” VanDyke’s hair is a distraction by way of its size and shape and the school administration is threatening to expel her if she doesn’t cut and shape her hair. The 12-year-old now has one week to decide whether to cut her hair of risk expulsion from the school. So who should change in this situation, FCA or VanDyke? Or is there a fair compromise that can be reached?
As an institution established on Christian principles Faith Christian Academy has a particular responsibility to encourage their students toward faithful behavior which includes embracing diversity. In this day and age diversity goes beyond the color of someone’s skin and reaches down to the particular cultural practices of the person, which, as we have witnessed in the last few years, includes the different hairstyles that evolve from the culture. Significant to this understanding is teaching young boys and girls that most black children don’t come into this world with straight hair and their hair, in its natural state, ranges from being straight to being tightly curled. Unfortunately all some children know is the so-called normativity of straight hair without knowing that there is usually a high price that little black girls pay to get that straight hair like her white female counterparts. The decision of a young black girl to wear her hair in its natural state isn’t one that should be held against her, not by a playground bullies or school administration. But in order for this to become the new normative—sad to say this—it must be taught to children at an early age that the world around them isn’t going to be full of people with straight hair. Maybe teachers should take a page from Jane Elliot’s Blue Eye/Brown Eye exercise except instead of dividing the classes into a blue eyed, black eyed group they are separated into Straight Hair/Natural Black Hair groups to allow children to experience what it feels like when someone bases their discrimination and disdain for you on external characteristics. But beyond trying to teach bullies a lesson through social experiments, the children need to be taught that making fun of a little black girl because of her hair is to make fun of the wondrous way in which God created her. This should be Faith Christian Academy’s concern, that the children who are making fun of and bullying VanDyke are making fun of God’s design. The school’s handling of this situation positions them as bullies on a number of counts–according to their bullying policy:
“Bullying can be direct or indirect, blatant or subtle, and it involves an imbalance of power, repeated actions, and intentional behavior.
Bullying is cutting someone off from essential relationships.
Bullying includes isolating the victim by making them feel rejected by his/her community.”
There is an imbalance of power at play with FCA currently threatening VanDyke with expulsion unless she cuts and shapes her hair–they have the upper hand and she has nothing to do but be subordinate. FCA is cutting VanDyke off from the essential relationships with friends she’s had she since starting at FCA in third grade. FCA is isolating her by threatening expulsion and making her feel rejected by both the school administration and students all because of her hair. It seems clear that the school is not practicing what it preaches to its student about the “Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Because surely if the school was practicing what it preaches and really being concerned about “avoiding practices which cause the loss of sensitivity to the spiritual needs of the world and which have an adverse effect on the physical, mental, and spiritual well being of Christian students” VanDyke could not and should not be moved. FCA has made Vanessa VanDyke’s hair a distraction and now they are trying to force her to change it—read conform her hair to their standards. But maybe VanDyke has a particular responsibility in this situation.
Do we protest too much when a situation such as this could be remedied with a ponytail, a bun, a French braid, etc? VanDyke’s hair is beautiful and she should be free to wear it as she pleases, but in exercising freedom to wear her hair as she pleases, is she still accountable to others? Yes, the other kids making fun of her need to be sat down and taught a lesson. And she shouldn’t be penalized by the administration for the way she way she wears her hair. But is there some particular course of action she must take beyond fighting to wear her hair as she pleases? The one thing that I can’t shake is the possible vanity of this situation. What does it mean to fight for the right to wear your hair is big as you please at the expense of other things? Maybe there are other ways that her hair could be worn. I know that many would argue that this is conceding to the politics of respectability, but we should question what it is we do with the freedom of expression we have. In this case, it is one little girl’s freedom to wear her hair as she pleases but should that trump everything else? FCA bears the brunt of this situation and the school administration must understand what it means to categorize a child’s hair as a distraction over say bullying, but I don’t want to miss an opportunity to discuss what a fight for individual freedom of expression costs and whether that cost is always worth it.
Not many people outside of the diaspora understand how connected black people are to their hair, even when we’d rather not be connected to it. We struggle with our hair but for many—present company included—the moment we go natural we discover what a great gift God has given us in this hair. One head of natural hair presents many possibilities for a little black girl or an adult black woman. It can be worn in a big blown-out ‘fro, a teeny-weeny ‘fro, a twist out, a braid out, in braids or in twists, wavy, or pressed straight. That isn’t even a comprehensive list of the possibilities that reveal themselves for natural girls and women. Suffice to say that to go natural is to be faithful stewards of what God has given us as God has given it to us. But I’m also fearful of what it means when that hair begins to eclipse other parts of our lives. When we become obsessed about our hair to the detriment of other parts of our lives and we are willing to sacrifice things for it. VanDyke’s hair is glorious but at what point does the fight for it become vainglorious? To be clear (again), FCA is losing this battle because all eyes are on them as the umpteenth school to use a child’s hair as grounds from suspension or expulsion. But as we continue to see more and more cases of children being sent home for wearing their natural hair in a particular way, what can we do about it? What is the executive decision that parents must make about their children’s hair? How do we negotiate full self-expression in the midst of the dominant culture that remains disinterested in it, without sacrificing things that are significant—in VanDyke’s case it is access to quality education at a private institution? As you can see, there is no simple answer to this. VanDyke will be damned if she does change her hair because many will think she sold out and she will be damned if she doesn’t change it because she might be expelled. To conclude this and say we must learn to pick our battles may show a sign of defeat, but maybe, just maybe, we have to sacrifice some things for a short time just to get where we need to be. For FCA this means stepping off of their “hair as a distraction” soapbox in order to allow a little girl to continue to grow and thrive and for VanDyke it may be that every now and then, she pulls that beautiful hair back into a still beautiful bun or ponytail or alternatively beautiful style.
But what do you think? Doth the school protest too much about her hair or doth she protest too much about her hair? This is what her and her family will be deliberating on this Thanksgiving. We give thanks for hair, but do we give up things for it too? Weigh in with your thoughts.