I am white, and cannot feel the deep meaning that different hairstyles hold for many African Americans. I do, though, understand that all human beings are individuals—shaped by race, but so much more—and that to best serve richly diverse people, we need an education system that can meet myriad, often conflicting, desires. Which is why, though saddened to see African-American children removed from private schools for their hairstyles, I am more concerned that such incidents will fuel efforts to smother school choice.
Two recent cases have generated headlines, and attacks on choice.
The first involves A Book’s Christian Academy in Apopka, Florida, where a little boy arrived for his first day of school with prohibited dreadlocks and wasn’t allowed in. “My son just got told he cannot attend this school with his hair,” the boy’s father said. “If that’s not bias, I don’t know what is.” Video of the incident sparked a national furor.
The second case involves two girls at the Christ the King school in Terrytown, Louisiana, who were sent out for wearing hair extensions. After the story spread the school ended its extension prohibition, but the families filed a lawsuit asserting that the policy discriminated against African Americans, presumably because they are more likely to wear extensions than other students. After discussion with school and archdiocesan officials, the families dropped the suit.
People of all races express themselves through their hair, but hairstyles can be especially meaningful to African Americans. In his autobiography, Malcolm X Shabazz discusses casting off the “conk” hairdo that used scalp-burning chemicals to make African-American hair straight. Speaking of any black man still wearing the conk, Shabazz said, “he will be much-improved mentally whenever he discovers enough black self-pride to have that mess clipped off, and then wear the natural hair that God gives black men to wear.”
Last year, African-American lawyer and TV host Areva Martin wrote, “We shouldn’t feel compelled to conform to a grooming standard that mandates we suppress our cultural roots and identity.”
These feelings are utterly understandable, and cultural sensitivity is crucial. But they must not lead government to exclude institutions from school choice programs, kill those programs altogether, or flat prohibit private schools from having such policies.
First, it is a basic matter of freedom: If people are unable to choose under what rules they will work together, they are simply not free.
More concretely, hairstyle policies that some may deem unacceptably restrictive, others, including African Americans, may believe provide great benefits. Such as:
- Discipline: Some parents may place heavy value on discipline, which they believe strict grooming standards help instill. Video testimonials on the website of A Book’s Academy, posted after the dreadlock incident, feature mainly black families, including a grandmother who praises the hair policy. “Instilling discipline in kids from such a tender age, it does matter,” she says.
- Professionalism: A family may select a school to prepare a child for professional success, and personal appearance often plays a role in work life. Since 2001, based on its reading of what constitutes professional appearance, the business school at historically black Hampton University has prohibited students in its leadership seminar from having dreadlocks or cornrows. "If you're going to play baseball, you wear baseball uniforms. If you're going to play tennis, you wear [a] tennis uniform,” said Dean Sid Credle.
- Acceptance: One reason many people like uniforms is that if all children must wear the same clothes, pressure to have the latest, often expensive looks disappears. Avoiding such pressure may apply to hairstyles, too, for some families.
- Distraction: How other people look can be distracting, especially to children. Go into a classroom with an orange mohawk and kids will start talking. But there is no clear line between “distracting” and “commonplace.” Different people will draw it at different places.
Many African Americans are offended by private schools prohibiting certain hairstyles, and we should strive to make everyone feel welcome and accepted. But policies that some find repressive, others may greatly desire, and for freedom and equality to exist we must allow all people to pursue what matters most to them.