This 1st Grader’s Hairstyle Represents His Native American Roots. His School Isn’t Having It.

Hair policing — the act of trying to dictate the style or length of another person’s hair — is a peculiarly persistent form of discrimination. That’s especially true of predominantly white institutions policing the hairstyles of people of color, who often have nuanced and culturally specific relationships to their hair.

Nonetheless, Classical Charter Schools of America, a system that includes four schools in North Carolina, is requiring two Native American boys to cut off their long hair if they want to return to class after the spring break, local outlet WRAL News reported Tuesday.

One of the students is a first grader whose mother, Ashley Lomboy, defended her son’s long braid by informing the administration that the hairstyle symbolizes a part of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe’s heritage, in which hair is linked with spirituality, per the American Civil Liberties Union. Under that reasoning, Lomboy said that the school system’s “grooming standards” would force her son to abandon an important cultural custom.

In response to her and another parent’s complaints, Classical Charter Schools released a statement doubling down on its stance. Among other rules, its grooming standards state that boys’ hair “must be neatly trimmed and off the collar, above the eyebrows, not below the top of the ears or eyebrows, and not an excessive height.” It also states that “Distracting, extreme, radical, or faddish haircuts, hair styles, and colors are not allowed.” The question here is, distracting and radical to whom, exactly?

This rejection of hairstyles linked to a nonwhite culture is not unique to Native American students. Black students across the country are repeatedly chastised (or worse) for possessing hairstyles that deviate from a white supremacist system of beauty and grooming. In both academic and professional settings, many people’s natural hair is seen as “unprofessional” or “unkempt.”

In some instances, Black students, as well as grown Black professionals, are expected to style their hair in ways that can be damaging or unsustainable. (And meanwhile, some products for relaxing and straightening hair have recently been found to contain harmful chemicals.) Hair policing is such a prevalent problem that California passed the CROWN Act in 2019, a law that prohibits discrimination based on hair texture. Though that local legislation will hopefully catch on, no federal laws currently protect employees from hairstyle-based discrimination.

In many Indigenous communities across the country, long hair signifies strength and is a symbol of cultural pride. It makes sense that groups whose cultures are constantly undermined and often erased altogether would want to keep such signifiers intact.

Although Classical Charter Schools’ grooming rules might make sense for some, they completely disregard the nuance that exists in nonwhite communities. This country is composed of various cultures, and not everyone needs to live by the same rules, as long as they’re not causing harm. Embracing that nuance would show a higher level of open-mindedness that all schools should strive to teach their students.

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