African-American-led charter school attacked as racist for hair policy

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Deborah Brown Community School, a elementary school in downtown Tulsa chartered under the aegis of Langston University (a historically black state university), has come under attack as a result of a misleading Fox 23 report about a parent's decision to remove his daughter from the school because the school prohibited his daughter's preferred hairstyle.

The Fox 23 story and descriptions linking the story on their Facebook page state that the girl was sent home because of hairstyle and that the girl was told directly by school officials that her hairstyle was unacceptable. The Fox 23 story had the girl on camera, sobbing, "They don't like my dreads." Facebook commenters reacted with outrage: How dare they make a little girl cry! How dare these racist school officials ban a natural, culturally significant hairstyle!

What actually happened is that the school reminded the girl's parent that the hairstyle was expressly against the school rules, and the parent chose to move the girl to a different school. This is according to a statement from the school sent in response to a question from the Huffington Post.

So the school did NOT kick the student out, did NOT send the student home, did NOT confront the little girl about her hair.

The point of a school uniform and dress code is that an elementary school is not a place to make a fashion statement or express your personal style. Elementary school is a place to be taught the basics -- reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history (names and dates) -- the grammar of learning, the foundation for further education in every subject. The overarching theme of the school's policy on hair is that hairstyles should be plain and simple.

Here is the Deborah Brown Community School parent/student handbook. And here is the entire section on the dress code:

Our philosophy and program aspires to raise the level of academic excellence through respect for learning. The students, therefore, dress in a uniform to encourage respect and seriousness of school. Students attending DBCS are required to wear black or brown shoes and the appropriate uniform as designated by the Executive Director. BLACK OR BROWN TENNIS SHOES ARE NOT ACCEPTABLE. It is suggested that each child have a minimum of four complete sets of uniforms. Any student not wearing the proper uniform Monday through Friday will be sent home for non-compliance to the school dress code. Hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros and other faddish styles are unacceptable. For safety reasons, girls weaved hair should be no longer than shoulder length. Boy's hair is to be short and neatly trimmed. Boys are not allowed to wear earrings.

If it is necessary to wear non-uniform clothing not only for emergency reasons, but Free Dress Day, students will not be allowed to wear letters, numbers or pictures on their garments. This rule applies to all students. Student dress should be conservative and modest. Free Dress Day will always be announced in writing.

Some online commenters declared that the school must be racist, because they are discriminating against "natural" ethnic hairstyles like dreadlocks and afros. When I pointed out to someone on Twitter that the founder/director of the school, the entire board and administration, and most of the faculty are African-American, the response was, "Phyllis Schlafly is female. Self-loathing is a terrible thing. Worse when it's projected onto members of one's own demographic."

Anyone who knows Phyllis Schlafly knows that there isn't an ounce of self-loathing in her.
She disagrees with leftists about what policies are in the best interests of American women, and she believes that women (and men) are best served by traditional family structures and values. It's a typical and ridiculous leftist tactic to strip an opponent of her worth and humanity and to discount her views by labeling her as self-loathing.

By the way, there's nothing natural about dreadlocks, afros, or mohawks for any hair type or ethnicity. Dreadlocks -- consisting of deliberately matted hair -- require a great deal of work to create and maintain, as do bushy afros and mohawks. Dreadlocks have cultural meaning to Rastafarians, who reject cutting and combing hair, but not to those of African descent generally. I was amused to find this September 1970 Los Angeles Times wire service story about fashionable Tanzanian women adopting the Afro fad in imitation of Americans, to the dismay of local nationalist leaders who considered it an example of Western cultural imperialism.

So here we have a group of African-Americans, led by a woman, who had a vision of doing a better job than the public schools at educating African-American children. A part of that vision is structure and discipline, an emphasis reflected in the school's dress code.


By all accounts, the Deborah Brown Community School is succeeding: DBCS received a "B" grade for 2011-2012. Of the Tulsa Public School district's 53 elementary schools, only 8 did as well or better.

The point of a charter school is to encourage innovation in education and to provide parents with tuition-free options so they can find the best educational approach for their children.

From a Tulsa World story on the Deborah Brown Community School and its plans to expand to include middle school grades:

The Deborah Brown school is sponsored by Langston University. About 250 students are enrolled, and 110 are on a waiting list.

By virtue of its location, 95 percent of its students are black, Mikel said. ...

The Deborah Brown school has high academic and behavioral expectations for its students.

As students walk down the hallways to wash their hands before lunch, they are quiet and well-mannered. Teachers place graded papers along the hallway for all to see. Most received A's.

The school uses an instructional method developed by its founder and namesake, and the curriculum is focused on reading, writing and math.

It also has a mandatory uniform policy and strict discipline policy and requires a strong commitment from parents to help their children reach their potential.

Mikel said that when he first came to the school, he heard children reciting something but wasn't sure what it was. It turns out, students were reciting the chemical elements from memory.

"I thought they were speaking a foreign language," he said with a laugh.

Shame on Fox 23 for damaging the reputation of a successful school serving African-American children by presenting this story in such a slanted and emotionally manipulative fashion.

MORE: Here's a more specific reference to the Tanzanian writer who dissed the American-style afro, from the February 1973 issue of Ebony, in an article entitled, "Is the Afro on Its Way Out?"

Surprisingly, one of the most vitriolic denouncements has come from an East African writer, Kadji Konde, who sees little resemblance between the big bush and the short styles worn by many African women. Rejecting it as a symbol of imperialist American decadence as purveyed by Westernized blacks, Konde wrote in a Tanzanian newspaper: "How natural these nests are is a mystery to me. In the United States, where this hairdo comes from, it is called an Afro style. This implies a link with Africa, although I fail to see how this keeping of wild oiled bush on the skull has anything to do with dear mother Africa." The attack as published was accompanied by a picture of Angela Davis.

Other common complaints are limitations on the types of hairstyles one might attempt with a 'fro, the difficulty of wearing a hat over a very large one in winter which means a whole recombing process each time the hat is removed and the gripes of both 'fro and non-'fro wearers who have found themselves seated in theaters or concert halls behind those whose towering bushes obscured any view of the stage.

And a story in the October 25, 1971, edition of Time, began:

From the time that it first appeared on the scene five years ago, the "natural" or Afro hair style closely paralleled the growth of black pride. Becoming a political statement and a symbol of racial identity as much as a popular hair style, it gradually billowed from close-cropped cuts into dramatic, spherical clouds that framed the heads of both women and men. Now that blacks feel more secure about their identity and are achieving some of their political goals, the popularity of the Afro has begun to wane.

If you're asking if a recently popular hairstyle is "on its way out" -- that's pretty much the definition of "faddish," isn't it?


Here is a playlist of videos about DBCS: A promotional video aimed at potential donors, a couple of news stories, and a couple of home videos. I don't get the impression that these students are being steeped in self-loathing.

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Laura Collins said:

Dear Michael,

I disagree strongly that 'afros' are a NOT natural hair condition.(What in the world?) Anyone with curly hair, (Caucasians also) who wears their curly hair naturally -- that is to wear it as it looks after brushing out the curls -- is technically sporting an 'afro' IN varying degrees(and lengths). I really believe it IS racist to expect different hair types to all CONFORM to one 'acceptable' style or length.
Bushy afros, as you called them are nothing more than the single hairs being freed up from being tangled or bundled inside a CURL when combed or brush out. To condition our hair, those of us with curly hair comb or pick(to detangle) out our curls to be sure that the conditioner reaches all the hairs. Very curly-haired people also usually have very thick hair, and they are also typically very FINE hairs which knot very easily. After this combing out, the wet, conditioned hair then naturally curls back into the groups of curls, when left to dry naturally without the aid of a hair dryer. When you brush out dry curls that is when you get the poofed up hair. This is NOT unnatural for those of us with this type of hair. To the contrary, it is our hair -- being itself.If it is 'big' hair, well Farrah Fawcett had her 'big' hair days, as did Dolly Parton. Styles/ fads come and go but what I have described is not a wig or a style. it is a natural condition of the hair.
Enough said. I think much ado about nothing.

Opal said:

I don't think they're racist I think that term is used incorrectly a lot. I will say, the most negativity I've received about my hair style have been from other blacks. Interestingly enough, they are the same ones that give me a hard time for voting conservative.

Naturally the school has a right to include that within their school policy, but I do find it a bit odd that hair weaves (which is synthetic hair or human hair)are allowed? Hair weaves are also a fad. Hair weaves are either sewn or glued to the persons hair.You (usually) can't wash weaved hair your hair like your own hair.

Speaking from experience, I will say that dreadlocks and afros aren't hard to maintain. I wash my dreadlocks every other day. I work at a Lutheran church. Our dress code is conservative. They'd definitely ask me to change if my style was unacceptable. I will say that my hair was more difficult to maintain when it was straightened. Moisture would make my hair revert to its naturally curly/coily state. That meant my hairstyle style would be half curly and the other part straight.

Chemical free my hair is very curly/coily so naturally it will turn into an afro if I do not straighten or apply chemicals to the hair. If I do simple twists without removing them, my hair will turn into dreadlocks.

Regarding locs, I've had mine, for over eight years before that time I wore my hair naturally either in twists or afro.

I am happy to see that this school is doing positive things with their students. That's extremely important. Having mentored at risk youth within the inner city, I must say we need more schools like the one you mentioned.

I'm fortunate that my daughter is able to attend a nice Lutheran school. I know all the teachers and they are amazing. Additionally I do a lot of work with my daughter at home.

Graychin said:

When I saw this news item, I wondered why it was even news.

Now I'm wondering why it's worthy of a blog post.

It sounds like a stupid rule, as are so many school dress-code rules. It wouldn't be back-to-school time without silly arguments over school rules.

But rules are rules. People should save their energy for fighting more important battles.

Imani Echoes Author Profile Page said:

"By the way, there's nothing natural about dreadlocks, afros, or mohawks for any hair type or ethnicity. Dreadlocks -- consisting of deliberately matted hair -- require a great deal of work to create and maintain, as do bushy afros and mohawks. Dreadlocks have cultural meaning to Rastafarians, who reject cutting and combing hair, but not to those of African descent generally. I was amused to find this September 1970 Los Angeles Times wire service story about fashionable Tanzanian women adopting the Afro fad in imitation of Americans, to the dismay of local nationalist leaders who considered it an example of Western cultural imperialism."

I don't know where you get the idea that an afro is not natural to a person whose hair grows into an afro if it is not cut short, chemically altered, or straightened - which is the problem with the policy! No one should have to alter the natural state of her hair to get an education. It's like telling a little girl with naturally straight hair to cut it short or curl it if she wants to get an education...I don't recall ever seeing such a policy that targets people with that type of it a fad to where your hair straight if it grows that way? Are you aware of the damage that is done to afro textured hair that is chemically altered and constantly straightened? It's really sad to see you defend such a policy without clearly understanding what's behind it and how countless women have struggled to overcome the negative stigma that is attached to the type of hair that naturally produces an afro. Please do thorough research on this subject before you promote such inaccurate information.

Rebecca said:

"So the school did NOT kick the student out, did NOT send the student home, did NOT confront the little girl about her hair"

The school told her that she HAD to change her hairstyle. The only option would be to cut it all off. So was the school giving her any options? If she didnt cut it she wouldnt be in complaince with the schools codes. So what happens after that? Do they keep her and deal with her "problem" or do they eventually expell her?

And hair is naturally curly. If all i did was wash and comb it YES I WOULD HAVE AN AFRO. My hair doesn't just fall to my shoulders. Which means my hair in its natural state would be violating the school's codes. Shame on this school for promoting self hatred.

I've been paying especially close attention for the last several days to hairstyles -- at the mall, at the grocery store, going around the city. This is anecdotal, but all of the African-American women I noticed had natural hair and none of them had big afros or dreads. Now there may be an issue of terminology, but I believe the dress code is talking about a giant, spherical teased-out hairstyle, rather than just the natural result of having curly hair. Someone on Facebook linked to a TV news story from a few years ago about DBCS; none of the children had straightened hair, but neither did any of them had big afros or dreadlocks. Some of the girls had braids, but by definition, braided hair can be unbraided, while dreadlocks are locked in. (Some of the girls with braids had beads braided into their hair, which was cute, but probably also a distraction.) It looked to me like there are many natural hairstyle options besides dreads or big afros.

Did the school give the parents any options for dealing with the conflict and the student's out-of-compliance hairstyle? We don't know, but my bet is that they did. At a private school in Tulsa last year, a senior girl dyed her hair with Kool-Aid, just for fun, during a school vacation, and then found that she couldn't wash the color out. Unnatural hair colors violate the school's dress code. A hair stylist was unable to reverse the problem. The school's solution was to notify the teachers: Yes, she's out of dress code; no, nothing can be done about it; we just have to wait it until it grows out and/or fades; please don't write her up for a violation. I suspect DBCS would have extended the same grace to the girl, if her parents were willing to bring her into compliance as soon as possible. We can't know, however, because her dad pulled her out of the school. I wonder if his claim that they let her wear dreads last year was in fact the school graciously tolerating a violation until it could reasonably be remedied.

Rebecca said:

To Michael Bates:

What would be a reasonable remedy in your opinion?

Help the student transition to a hairstyle that meets the rules as soon as it's possible to do so. That may involve enlisting the help of a hair stylist. That may mean some delay to give her hair time to grow out. Be understanding and patient, but be sure the parents understand that the rules are what they are, and they have a responsibility to help their daughter comply with the dress code. That means they shouldn't give her a hairstyle that clearly violates the rules.

It would be reasonable for the board to consider fine-tuning the rules. In this case, it looks like the parents didn't want to pursue any option other than withdrawal and confrontation.

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