The conversation surrounding the policing of the Black male body has once again gained relevance in 2020 with the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, two Black men who died at the hands of racially motivated violence. Contrastingly, we have not seen this same degree of conversation involving the policing of the Black female body, specifically towards Black girls. When we focus our attention on Black girls, we see that educational settings serve as the venue for such policing against Black girls, especially in regards to their hair. This study continues the work for contextualizing the treatment of Black girls and their hair in school, with their attempt to define themselves. This research study looks to examine the implications of the policing of Black girls’ hair. This is done by reviewing the existing literature focused on the ways in which body policing, stereotypes, and hair politics interlock with how Black girls identify themselves. Secondly, using oral history interviews, I discuss the experiences of 15 Black women with their hair journey primarily during middle and high school. My findings conclude that the policing of Black girls’ hair in school leaves them mentally strained, verbally and non-verbally assaulted, and wounded while trying to self-define their evolving identities as young women. It is worth indicating that this report is not a call for natural hair and protective styling. This is merely an attempt to show the multifariousness of Black girls and a call to let them revel in this diversity. We must push for education spaces that are “. . . of love. Not just a love for the Harlem Renaissance or the civil rights movement but love for loud colors and loud voices.” In letting Black women tell their stories from girlhood, hopefully, we will allow a Black girl to be a little freer in her existence and add another voice to the call to end the policing of Black girls in school.
“Fix your hair or you won’t walk.” This was the last thing I heard before my teacher forcibly positioned my graduation cap over my hair. To my teacher, my hairstyle was in violation of our high school’s graduation dress code. My bangs were inappropriate, yet my white peers’ bangs were deemed acceptable. My natural hair was considered a problem that needed to be fixed, and that fixing required someone to invade my space, not only via touching my hair, but also my culture, and my identity. For many Black women and girls, this invasion is not foreign. For me, my natural hairstyle became an avenue for control and punishment. For Black women in Louisiana in 1786, it was simply the act of having hair that differed from the white norm would force them to wear headwraps in public, mandated by ‘tignon laws”2. The policing of Black bodies is not only a modern issue in this country. We have seen it during enslavement, Reconstruction, in Jim Crow laws, and even still today in the recurring instances of police brutality. The subject is typically centered around Black men, but it is happening to our girls as well.
In order to advance the discussion of the policing of Black girls' hair, stereotypes, hair politics and identity must be present. We must refocus our attention on the experiences of Black girls and body policing in schools, as they are often overlooked. We must then look at the role that stereotypes play in shaping our thoughts and interactions with Black girls. Until we recognize the significance of stereotypes in relation to biases, we cannot begin to contextualize how body policing is experienced by Black girls in educational settings. Furthermore, time needs to be taken to extrapolate how negative images of Black women are intertwined in our understanding of Black hair. This also obliges that we juxtapose how the world views Black hair against how Black women and girls view Black hair. In this conversation, we will get to the heart of how these all influence Black girl’s self-definition of identity. One of the principal questions of this research is: What are the impacts of the policing of Black girls’ bodies, specifically their hair, in school settings? It would not be fair to have such a robust conversation on Black girls’ experiences, without talking to Black women about their experiences as girls in United States educational environments. Therefore, this paper will include oral history interviews of Black women from ages 18-55 discussing their experiences with hair, especially in schools, during their adolescent years.
Girlhood is a privilege that many Black girls are not afforded. For Black girls, their experiences are too often only real to them. If there truly is power behind telling your story, many Black girls have been left powerless. As a young Black woman, who still feels very much connected to the Black girl within, I understand the importance of making sure she is heard. This thesis is written in hopes of being a microphone for Black girls. This is for all the Black girls in the world young and old—ages 2 to 92. May your story never cease to be told.
The purpose of this literature review is to explore the conversations involving the policing of Black girls’ hair. Certainly, there is no one body of literature, research, or canon that summarizes the dynamic relationship between body policing and Black women and girls, especially about their hair. In fact, a major impetus for this study is the great void and level of misinformation on the role of policing on Black girls experiences and self-definition during adolescence. To achieve this objective, this literature review is divided into four areas. To familiarize the reader with the subject matter under consideration, section one (I) examines body policing. Section two (II) broadly reviews the literature that examines stereotypes. Furthemore, section three (III) examines the topic of hair politics. Lastly, section four (IV) reviews concepts surrounding identity and self-definition.
- Body Policing
To begin the conversation on body policing, it is necessary to define policing. For this project, I call upon Monique Morris’ Pushout and my own experiences to define policing as “verbal and nonverbal cues” that signal towards and enforce a certain behavior.3 Before we can get to such a discussion, we must first understand why this conversation is germane to the topic of policing Black girls’ hair in school. As Morris asserts, “schools are . . . one of the largest influences on life and trajectory of Black girls.”4 This assertion implies the relevance of school on Black girls’ future and those behaviors, like body policing, whether it be from other students or staff, poorly influence Black girls. According to Marquis Bey, “the body in effect is a text onto which scripts and meanings are inscribed.”5 Meaning, how we define a body dictates how we treat that body. Bey then goes on to explain how the Black body, specifically, is “marred to its perceptions, interpretations, and actions based on interpretations.”6 Thus, the radical othering of the Black body through the white gaze has created a lack of understanding of the Black body itself. This lack of “Black epistemology” of its body has created ideas of the Black body rooted in “sexual rapacity, thugness”, etc. This is seen in the case of Mike Brown. His body represented the potential to confirm these stereotypes placed on the Black body as menace, thieves, murderers, and rapists. 7 Bey then adds,
. . the Negro’s place’ is within the restrictive confines of the White imagi-nary, existing precisely as the White gaze has constructed the ontological essence of the Black body, then to step outside of the limits of that imaginary is fatal.8
The case of Trayvon Martin embodies this quote. He represented a Black body that stepped outside of the white gaze’s stereotypical views of the Black body as a medium for robbery; his punishment was fatal. Bey also reminds us that these unjust killings of Black people serve as confirmation of the very false perceptions placed on Black individuals through the “white imaginary”. Meaning, they theorized falsehood about the Black body and confirmed such theories while simultaneously justifying Black people’s killing based on these untruthful biases.9 In Bey’s work this conversation is centered around the Black male body, but I argue that his ideas can and must be extended to the body of Black women and girls.
It is worth emphasizing that this process of inscribing meaning to Black bodies and acting on these inscribed meanings is happening to Black girls as well, but they remain overlooked in this conversation of body policing. Morris notes in Pushout that the policing of Black girls has taken place historically, with the first juvenile center of Black youth opening in 1835, and typically such facilities and the general policing of Black girls overlook the intersectional troubles Black girls face.10 Presently, despite being a low percentage of the population, “Black girls are 4 times as likely to be arrested in school compared to their white counterparts in the US.”11 We also know that Black girls tend to stay in juvenile justice facilities longer and experience fewer positive outcomes, than their white counterparts.12
A key facet that affects the policing of Black girls is the intersectionality of their identity. This is evident when, in Evans-Winter’s research, “Flipping the Script”, Black girls admit to feeling disciplined as “girls, non-white girls, and poor girls.”13 The girls in her study expressed feeling targeted because “of their style of dress, their hair, their attitude or character.” They felt as though they are viewed by others as a “dangerous”, “threat to society”. 14 In Morris’ work we see Black girls say they feel “pushed out” of school for simply wearing natural hair and other harmless behaviors.15 Evans-Winter provides us with an example of gender-specific racial policing in school. Roxanne’s (a Black student) hair was weaponized by school officials when she was asked to take her hair down after the bobby pins in her hair set off the metal detector. The school official who forced her to take down her hair wrap failed to understand the meaning of hair and Black culture and in effect attacked Roxanne’s identity as a woman and as a Black person.16 Morris asserts in her work:
According to criminologist Venetta Young, “Black women in American Society have been victimized by their status as Blacks and as women …
knowledge about [Black] women is based on images that are distorted and falsified. In turn, these images have influenced the way in which black female victims and offenders are treated by the justice system.17
These incidents that have left Black girls and women feeling policed show that many schools lack a cultural understanding of what it means to be Black and a female.
It is understood that there is a phenomenon where Black people, specifically Black girls in schools, are being policed; however, this conversation cannot stop there. There needs to be theorization as to why this phenomenon is happening. For this question, I can call upon reports from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). In 2014, following the death of Mike Brown, the DOJ launched their investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. Their findings were that police in Ferguson, Missouri target or over-police Black people in the city, due in part to “unlawful biases against and stereotypes about African Americans”.18 This unlawful bias towards Black people does not begin, nor does it end with the Ferguson police department. We see it in our schools as well. According to Morris:
Since the elimination of de jure segregation, Black girls have been subjected to harmful stereotypes about Black femininity that have at least shaped, at worst defined their experiences in classrooms in schools around the country.19
The stereotypes that we enact on Black girls, such as being “loud, ghetto, or rachet,” are used as justification for the mistreatment of Black girls in schools.20 This is in part why see Black girls having to play “identity politics” to be seen as good versus bad based on these stereotypes we have of Black women and girls.21 These stereotypes we have of Black womanhood are what society uses as instructions and justification for the policing of Black bodies.
It is inadvertently evident that stereotypes play a role in shaping our understanding of others starting from a young age. In this section, I choose to evaluate stereotypes about Black women and apply them to Black girls. This decision is based on Morris’ notion of age compression on Black girls. She notes that age compression is “the assignment of adult-like characteristics to the expression of Black girls.”22 Meaning, these biases that we have placed on Black women can accurately be placed on Black girls because as a society we view Black girls not as girls, but as women. These learned biases guide our attitudes and actions as we grow older.23 These stereotypes can sometimes stem from the media. Bell hooks claim that “specific images” of how blackness is represented in the media strengthens and controls the oppression of Black people. These images reinforce white supremacy.24 These negative images create a stereotype threat. Tatum describes this as, “a threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype.” This usually causes anxiety that can lead an individual to perform negatively.25 Black girls are judged in schools based on stereotypes dated back to enslavement, which ultimately shapes the mistreatment of Black girls.26
Patricia Hill Collins argues that there are 4 major stereotypes that are placed onto Black women that are juxtaposed with the “cult of true womanhood: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.” These stereotypes are the mammy, the Black matriarch, the welfare mother, and the jezebel.27 I argue that these stereotypes, while they may have evolved, are still seen today. They are still being used as a tool to subjugate Black women. Melissa Harris-Perry states, the “mammy stereotype became popularized after the end of enslavement, where the ‘breeding’ of Black women was no longer financially/ economically incentivizing.”28 The mammy caricature was needed for Black women to be a non-threat to white families (as opposed to the threat that the over-sexualized image of Black women posed) while she worked as a maternal figure in white homes.29 Harris also mentions how some stereotypes have become so entrenched in society that we do not even recognize nor study them. This is seen with the angry Black woman stereotypes that have been placed on many Black women such as Maxine Waters or Michelle Obama.30 She states,
The stereotype of the angry, mean Black woman goes unnamed not because it is insignificant, but because it is considered an essential characteristic of Black femininity regardless of the other stereotypical roles a Black woman may be accused of occupying. These stereotypes are more than representations; they are representations that shape realities. In other words, it is not studied because many researchers accept the stereotype.31
Angela Davis speaks to how she was stereotyped because of her afro. In Davis’ article, she claims the afro represented the stereotype of the “Black militant or revolutionary”. While she was wanted by the FBI, other Black women who wore their hair naturally were harassed and questioned even though they looked nothing like her.32
This stereotyping continues today when we see Black girls who are victims of sexual assault labeled as “fast”. This is evident in conversations surrounding the 2008 case against R. Kelly.33 kihana miraya ross explains that “blackness is equated with crime, incarceration, prostitution, promiscuity, and so forth.”34 Black girls are never able to escape the archetypes of blackness and therefore, are always treated as such in schools. Monique Morris sets to point out that many of these perceived negative characteristics placed on Black women and girls (eg. attitude) are really coping/survival mechanisms learned throughout time for their status in society; however, too often it is painted in a negative light because of lack of “cultural competency.”35 Tatum tells us that Black girls have to combat false “hypersexualized and . . . negative representation seen in popular culture” in order to “affirm” positive self-image of themselves.36 ross’ work reveals that Black girls feel they are viewed as a certain stereotype regardless of how they act, and other non-black students are not judged in this same way.37
We know that historical stereotypes have evolved through time to fit modern-day negative images of Black women.38 My next question is how does hair play a role in these images? What hairstyles are associated with certain controlling images? How does this impact the way we treat Black girls with these hairstyles?
III. Hair Politics
The politicizing of hair is unique to Black women. According to Althea Prince, white women do not experience this same level of ridicule when it comes to hair.39 She states: “These judgments about what is beautiful have a large impact on young Black women’s self-esteem, their choices, and ultimately their lives.”40 This is why it is important to discuss what it means to have Black hair. This question is two-fold, as how Black women and girls define their hair may be different than how the world defines it. Noliwe Rooks declares that,
Indeed, the representation of hair and the discussion of the meaning of African American women's relationships with their hair illustrates the extent to which hair become synonymous with politics and the construction of a group identity41
In this section, I plan to discuss the ways in which Black women and girls view their hair, the ways outsiders view Black hair, and the consequences of politicizing and policing Black hair on Black girls.
Black hair did not become relevant during enslavement; hair as a significant marker dates back to pre-enslavement on the continent. Ayana Byrd explains, in African civilization, hair was a way to communicate: “marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank.”42 During the 19th century, we see Africans on the continent view hair and hairdressing as a part of the social, spiritual, and ritualistic culture. Some Yoruba civilizations viewed hair as a way to communicate with their gods and goddesses. In the Mende culture, hairdressing was a form of camaraderie.43 This tradition is still carried out with Africans in The United States today. In The Politics of Black Hair, Prince asserts “ I have always thought of Black women’s hair-grooming as a ritual--a spiritual happening that loosens Black women’s emotions and their tongues”.44 Rooks explains how for many Black girls the process of going to the hair salon was a cultural experience. The sights, the smells, and conversations were all a part of the process of getting your hair done.45 For Black women and girls, their hair can be a tool for the expression of emotions. A short hairstyle can be a way to express they are feeling “fun, carefree, and embracing change.”46 While hair for some Black women is much more than hair, acting as a subset of their identity, for others hair is simply just hair.47 I believe when we lump all Black women and girls into a single category based on their hairstyle, we fail to acknowledge the multiplicity of Black women and girls. Black women view their hair in many different ways, but these views do not become negative until they take into account how others view them and their hair, which is why discussing how the world views Black girls’ hair is paramount.
As maintained by Byrd, during enslavement, Black people’s hair was described as wool as a means to dehumanize them and say they were incapable of growing “real” hair.48 This degradation of Black life reinforces Bey’s theory of how meaning is placed on the Black body, but more specifically this time, Black hair. Black women’s hair was “appropriated and used as a terrain upon which meaning was inscribed and ideologies illustrated.”49 An example of these meanings is seen when Morris states there has been a “politicization” and “vilification” of Black hair and it portrays kinky hair as “unmanageable and wild.” These cues bear the message that Black girls are less than.50 There are other messages that are sent to Black girls about particular hairstyles. Black hair can send signals about Black women’s identity based on assumptions and prejudices society has gathered about specific hairstyles. For example, natural hair can be viewed as “radical” and those who wear this style are “pushy and tough”, while straight hair is “conservative”.51 For Angela Davis, she believes the FBI aided in creating this image of the afro through her wanted picture. She argues that the way the afro represents the stereotypical Black militant is due in part to her being labeled as such while wearing the hairstyle.52
We can continue this examination of how the world views Black hair through the courts. In the case of EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions (2014), we see verbiage that suggests that Black hair is unprofessional.53 They even go as far, in the cases of Rogers v. American Airlines (1981) and Pitts v. Wild Adventures, Inc. (2008), to say that you cannot racially discriminate based on hairstyles (e.g. braids) citing the “mutability of hair” and white people being able to wear the same style.54 The courts then try to categorize Black hair to understand when actions should be deemed racial discrimination and when they should not. In 2014, they state the afro is a racial hairstyle because it is “immutable” and locs are cultural hairstyles because they are styled through “manipulation of the hair.”55 Their meaning-making of Black hair lacks cultural and racial competency on Black hair. Meaning, the courts proved itself to be ignorant to hairstyles such as freeform locs which requires no manipulation.56 It is clear that the courts do not understand Black hair.
All of these meanings placed on Black women and girls’ hair have real-life consequences for them. In January 1999, Venus Williams lost at the Australian Open after being penalized when her beads fell off of her braids. 57 As for schools, this is the first site where Black children are forced to “explain, defend, and make excuses” for their hair.58 Morris shares that, “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, and mohawks, and other faddish hairstyles are unacceptable in school in Tulsa, Oklahoma.59 To remedy this, schools must understand the purpose and impact of dress code and eliminate any reference to “hairstyles that are historically associated with Black cultural traditions.”60 Microaggressions, like only complimenting Black girls’ hair when straight, send messages about what is deemed beautiful.61 This pressures individuals to style their hair a certain way to be accepted. The politics of Black hair have created an external battle for Black women and girls, but it is also causing an internal battle that is reflected in their self-definition and identity.
IV. Self-Definition and Identity
Self-definition, as Patricia Hills Collins illustrates, is a means to resist controlling images.62 This fight to define oneself is a universal and collective fight for all Black women according to bell hooks.63 Self-definition is immensely linked, if not synonymous with identity given the ties between who someone is and how they view themselves. Before getting into a deeper conversation of identity, though, we must recognize that individuals begin their identity during adolescence with the journey continuing well within adulthood.64 Identity is a question of “Who am I”? However, this question cannot be answered without evaluating how the world views you. Who am I is really a question of who am I to “my parents, peers, teachers, neighbors, my community, and the media”.65 As attested by Tatum, “for Black youth asking ‘Who am I?’ usually includes thinking about ‘who am I ethnically and/ or racially? What does it mean to be Black?’”66 Usually, due to an experience/event with race or racism, Black children begin to think about their identity or fate and its connection to race. They question, “Who am I?” in tangent with a specific racial group? This can start as early as middle school and is seen more significantly with Black children, specifically Black girls.67 This question of identity is intertwined with hair for Black girls. Prince explains that they begin understanding that their hair isn’t beautiful naturally starting during adolescence.68 This also where Tatum states individuals begin to form an identity, as previously mentioned. If identity is rooted in how others see you, what does this mean for Black girls who are told their hair is not beautiful? How does this impact how they self-define or identify themselves?
Furthermore, how are self-definition and identity affected by educational settings? Monique Morris reveals to us that schools play a big role in the self-definition of Black girls. Black women during enslavement have been dehumanized and as a result today, this “castigated identity” of Black womanhood is forcing Black girls to struggle being seen as good girls.69 These negative images are impacting Black girls’ “ability to shape their identity.” They do not see themselves as worthy of things such as: “dignity, respect, and opportunity.”70 Tatum defines the action of someone taking in a stereotype about a group they are a part of as internalized oppression.71 kihana miraya ross contends that the way the world views Black girls impacts the way Black girls view other Black girls and, in effect, impacts the way Black girls view themselves.72 ross’ study on Black sovereign education spaces unveils that Black girls believed that an all-Black girl space would be harmful because they viewed Black girls as ratchet and other negative images placed on Black women and girls. The other Black girls in the class represented the negative stereotypes they dealt with internally.73
Consequently, the actions of Black girls in school are correlated with how internalized racism shapes identity. Due to the “bastardization of Black girl’s culture, Black girls are left fighting to defy stereotypes placed on them, leading to judgment on their cultural decisions such as hair and its styling.74 Schools’ lack of cultural competency causes Black girls to feel as though their identity as Black girls are not accepted, and they combat this through resistance. This resistance often looks like “fighting back with words, resisting school rules, and officials, or shutting down emotionally, and psychologically.”75 In spite of battling race and gender-specific racism, Black girls remain self-determined. Through their resilience, they self-define themselves as having emotions, while also having agency.76 Black girls’ bodies, specifically their hair, are policed, stereotyped, politicized. All of these factors culminate to impact the way they view themselves as Black girls and as individuals. While this conversation has been robust in examining how the way we treat Black girls’ in schools is impacting them, it would be a disservice to Black girls to not let them speak for themselves.
The research approach constructed for this study uses qualitative methods to explore several avenues to examine the impact of the policing of Black girls’ bodies, specifically their hair, in school settings. In-depth oral interviews were conducted with 15 self-identified Black women over the age of 18 about their childhood experiences with their hair in schools. The sampling and data collection process was divided into two stages:
- a convenience sample established through word of mouth and social media flyer distribution; and (2) transcription and coding. Sample participants were selected or recommended through social media and personal networks looking for individuals who identify as a Black woman and have experiences with their hair being policed in primary and secondary school. Interviews were conducted over the phone, recorded and later transcribed. Gaining insight into girls’ experiences in the past is relevant to Black girls’ holistic school experiences throughout space and time. Although the women interviewed are no longer girls, they once were and their experiences in girlhood are still valid and aid in answering the research question at hand. After going through the 15 interviews, I found that Black girls are being impacted by the policing of their hair in specific ways.
Over a one month period in the Summer and Fall of 2020, I conducted in-depth interviews and audio observations. The 15 Black women sampled ages ranged from 18 to 50, geographically located from the South, East, and Midwest. The interview questions were divided into 7 categories covering the individuals’ background, hair background, girlhood and primary education, teen-hood and secondary education, womanhood, motherhood, and Black women today. Policing of Black girls is seen explicitly through policies enacted at school and inexplicitly through compliments, insults, and physical touching. Black girls also acknowledge the culture behind their hair and how attacks on their hair also attack their culture. Participants were given pseudonyms to hide their identity. Interviews lasted about 45 - 60 minutes each and were recorded using an audio recorder. Additional follow-up interviews were taken with each participant within 2 months of the original interview. Participants were informed in advance of the voluntary nature of the study. Upon agreement to be interviewed, consent was established for the adults.
This study sought to answer the question of what is the impact of policing Black girls’ bodies, specifically, their hair in school, using in-depth interviews. Thus, while others may overlook the issue of hair policing in school all of the participants expressed having dealt with hair policing impacting them emotionally, socially, mentally and a few times physically. The in-depth analysis revealed three common impacts: a mental strain, verbal and non- verbal assault, and wounds as they try to self-define.
Black girls are charged with navigating antiblack stereotypes about their hair. These stereotypes are putting Black girls through a mental strain that is unparalleled. This emotional stress is directly linked to the controlling images placed onto Black hairstyles and what these stereotypes imply about Black girls themselves. Such experiences are comparable to the mental strain of body shaming or colorism. When we attack Black girls for their hair, we coerce them through emotional distress to contemplate concepts involving their hair, policing, racism, and sexism. Black women grow up feeling like Black hair is grouped with terms such as unprofessional, unruly, and ghetto. Tabitha, a Black girl who identifies as Afro-Latina describes how these stereotypes carried over in how she was viewed as a student. She believed that since she had “nappy'' hair she would be stereotyped according to her hair. She confessed:
And so it also made me just feel like well, are people going to automatically kind of stereotype me and say, “This is bad hair and so obviously she's one of those like people and therefore she's not, she can't possibly be professional or intelligent.” I thought that people were going to judge me both physically like that I was not physically up to the job and that also that like mentally they might associate me having quote-unquote bad hair with me being stupid, almost like literally being stupid or acting a certain way that society has said that girls with hair like mine, typically acted like.
This same participant shared that when she started wearing long and straight extensions, the phenomenon reversed. The mental strain of her experience fluctuated more when her teachers continually pointed out when she wore her hair straight and long. Tabitha’s teachers were more likely to have confidence in her answers and she was overall taken more seriously as a student simply because her hair was not “nappy”. From her academic transcript it was clear she was a smart student, yet her intelligence came into question when authorities delegitimize her intellectual capabilities with her hair in its natural state.
This same mental strain was experienced by Aya in high school who tells of when she was discouraged from wearing braids because when she did she was called “ghetto.” Contrastly, when she wore weave, she was told she was trying to be white. Other students, primarily Black boys, believed she was attempting to be someone she was not when she wore weaves and braids. This categorizing of her as either being too ghetto or too white when she wore braids and weave, respectively, boxed her in with the types of hairstyles she could wear and be accepted. Furthermore, this example of stereotyping highlights how Black girls' identity is under attack through ideas placed on them about their hair. How do braids make you ghetto and what does it mean to be ghetto? Likewise, what makes straight hair “white” and what does it mean to act “white”? These questions open up a conversation on how the mental strain of grappling what it means to have Black hair impacts Black girls. Such mental strain that Black girls are having in relation to their hair, should not be happening.
The root of the mental strain is ingrained in school policies as well. Multiple participants cited policies that restrict Black girls from wearing hair that is not natural to them. Schools would go as far as to remove Black girls from the classroom and place them in in-school suspension until they changed their hair as one participant recalls. For Alicia, such policies were frustrating because they were based on the school’s false view of blackness and what is possible from Black hair. She noted that her hair naturally had blonde highlights, and she knew of other Black girls who did have natural blonde hair. Much like the court cases discussed earlier in this paper, schools tried to define Black hair for themselves and form policies from their definitions; however, their definitions were not factual to Black people and their hair.77 Much like Marquis Bey’s discussion on false meanings being inscribed on the Black body, and then justified through the harm placed on the Black body, school policies perpetuate false meanings about Black hair and justify these meanings through these very policies.78 Stereotyping through school policies is uniquely harmful because it is given validity by the parents, students, teachers, staff, administrators, and school board officials who accept and enforce such policies. These hair stereotypes place a unique strain on the cognitive processes of Black girls grappling with the question of “who am I?”
Throughout the interviews, aside from the mental strain, about 87 percent of participants also discussed the harsh levels of assault they experienced at a young age, which translated into a form of policing of their hair. This assault was enacted through various means. I divide their experiences of being assaulted into two categories: verbal and non-verbal.
One of the first verbal attacks that stood out in an interview, revolved around simple but interestingly complex compliments. Compliments matter. Depending on when and how often a Black girl receives compliments on her hair, it sends a signal about what hairstyles are deemed acceptable and impacts how they view themselves regarding their hair. Olivia, who felt that her hair was not long or straight enough during middle school, revealed that she did not receive many compliments on her hair. Boys would tell her they did not like her because of her hair, and other students would make negative comments about her hair, calling it “nappy.” Because of this ridicule and lack of compliments, she experienced low self-esteem. Another example of verbal cues influencing Black girls’ hairstyles in middle school is when Samantha described being discouraged from wearing braids because of the number of questions she received. The series of questions about her braids having extensions made her feel wearing braids and extensions was “cheating.” In another scenario, being complimented on having “good hair” made Tammy feel as though she had to continue to wear her hair straight to avoid her hair falling out of good grace with her classmates. These compliments made Tabitha feel as though no one could see her as the beautiful and intelligent young woman she was unless she wore extensions. We see her perception of these compliments when she explains:
I couldn't meet society's expectations without my hair looking like that. And so I think they offered the compliment, because it was almost like a finally she has heard our requests. And she has finally gotten it together. And so now that she is meeting our demands, then we do have to compliment, like, we have to reinforce like, yes, this is what we want. And so I think that's where the compliments came from, because they saw a difference in what I was doing, and they liked the difference, because they forced the difference and the chains upon me. So I think the compliments just came almost as a them reinforcing like yeah, keep doing this. We like that, we like this direction you're heading in.
Compliments are not just compliments for Black girls. They are pathways in understanding your value, methods of determining behavior and markers of understanding standards of beauty. For this participant, the tactic worked. The verbal abuse she endured forced her to wear the hair that she felt her teachers and peers wanted to see.
Insults are another form of verbal assault that Black girls are subjected to in school. Anne vowed to never wear her natural hair out in public again after her Spanish teacher called her out in front of the class for having a “bad hair day” when she wore her afro (fro) outside for the first time. A similar encounter happened with Christina who wore her fro in public before she had her hair straightened for prom. A friend of hers ridiculed her fro and asked her with a look of disgust, “are you going to wear your hair like that to prom?” Samantha noted a comparative incident when her drama teacher drew attention to her hair in the middle of class when discussing upcoming productions' uniformity. She disclosed that she felt like her hair was a stressor for her teacher. In return, it made her feel like her hair was a distraction and that she needed to assimilate. All of these instances discouraged Black girls from styling their hair in specific ways.
As mentioned earlier, school policies leave Black girls under mental strain because of their hair. These same policies about hair color contribute to the attack on Black girls too. Aya who had the same policy of forbidding “unnatural” hairstyles in place at her school expressed her discontentment with such policies as:
It made me angry because whenever white girls wore their hair in different colors, that wasn't their natural color, they weren't asked to remove their hair color or they weren't asked to change it or go back to a more natural color. But whenever Black girls wore their hair in the same colors, it was seen as distracting and it was loud and it was asked to change.
This blatant hair discrimination is a means to control Black girls’ hair specifically. These same policies are not enforced equally, making such policies a deliberate act against Black girls. They understand the rules in place are enacted to police them and result in their abuse. Outside of the fact that all rules should be enforced equally, such policies should not exist.
In addition to the verbal attacks on Black girls, non-verbal assaults emerged in the interviews ashaving a strong impact on the women’s lives. Eleven (73 percent) of the participants expressed having issues with people touching their hair in middle school and a majority of those described mainly white teachers and students being the ones who touched their hair. Michelle recalls when her white peers touched her hair without her consent, they would always pat down her fro. This was an issue for her because she wanted her hair to be as big as possible, and they would invade her space without asking permission and ruin her hairstyle. Her peers deliberately patting down her fro was an assault against Black hair. White students saw her large afro, and their instinct was to tame it by making it smaller. However, this Black girl wanted the exact opposite. These involuntary invasions of Black girls’ hair resulted in a consistent response from Black girls that Carly describes as such:
. .it made me feel like a fish in a fishbowl. It made me feel like an animal in a petting zoo. It made me feel uncomfortable and made me feel like I was being invaded. But in the moment, I just felt like squirmish like, I was like, Why? Why is this happening?
Many of the study respondents echoed this response, likening themselves to animals being petted when others would touch their hair. They often cited white people not touching each other's hair for their reasoning behind their feelings. If they are not touching each other’s hair, why are they invading Black girls’ space to touch theirs? Many of the Black girls who participated in the interview did not have the answer to this question. Still, they were aware that such a question is valid in understanding this phenomenon that they believed were unique to them. For Megan, her peers went as far as to throw objects in her fro. She confesses:
I remember one time I was walking down a hallway, and I got to my next period class, sat down. And I was like, just touching my hair and I had found like, one of those attachable pencil erasers in it, just I guess somebody had thrown in it while I was walking down the hallway. So that I still did not appreciate.
This physical assault (the act of unwanted physical contact upon a person’s body) of her hair is a means to control her. These types of actions make Black girls feel attacked simply for wearing their hair in a particular style. It was her natural hair for some students, but there is not a clear indicator that one style is favored across the board for all the participants. Black girls should be able to adorn any hair color and hairstyle that they choose. As the participants have shown us, Black hair can be a cultural expression. What does it imply when we tell Black girls that their hair is bad, ghetto, or a stressor? What does it mean when we invade their space and assault their hair? Luckily, this student, who is in high school at the time, notes that although her hair was physically invaded, she still felt comfortable with her natural hair, and this did not stop her from wearing her hair in her preferred style. We see this transformation of Black girls developing a sense of agency regarding their hair as they get older. I must stress that Black girls should not have to experience any pressure regarding their hairstyle choice. Other girls do not experience verbal and nonverbal abuse meant to control their hair in school, and these abuses have the potential to mandate the decisions of Black girls’ in the future.
Wounded While Self-Defining
The abuse and mental strain Black girls endure in school ultimately leads to a struggle to self-define themselves and their culture. When examining Black girls responses to verbal and non-verbal abuse in middle school versus high school, we notice when older, some Black girls were more socially aware; therefore, they were more likely to stop someone from touching their hair, and they were equally as likely to disregard the attacks on their hair. They had a better sense of their identity, so these attacks were unsuccessful. Anne described her school district as one that regularly policed students down to the inches of their shorts, and she respected students who did not comply with the anti-black policies used to police hair. Although she was not as rebellious towards school policy when it came to her hair, she recognized how Black girl's hair is linked to their culture and self-expression. They should have the freedom to display their culture and express themselves however they choose.
Another example of a similar recognition of Black girls’ hair as culture is when Kim discussed her middle school policing how big a Black student’s hair could be. This issue forced her to reflect on such policies and who they intended to restrict. She noted, “I don't believe like, our hair should be policed at all, especially African Americans’ hair because there is so much that we do with it. And there's such a culture behind it.” This experience speaks to the lack of cultural competency that Morris discusses that schools display when creating and enacting policies.79 When they tell Black girls that their hairstyle is unacceptable, they tell them that their culture is unacceptable. These experiences only leave Black girls feeling attacked for being Black girls. Still, some of the Black girls in this study are standing firm in their culture and not allowing others to distort their definitions of it.
We continue to see this struggle of self-determination from Black girls looking to define their hair for themselves. This is evident when Linda describes why she went natural as:
I think I wanted to have curly hair because I just started seeing how beautiful it is and I started learning more about assimilation, a lot about internalized racism, and just how brainwashed we are to see that our natural hair is ugly. And so I didn't want to be a part of that. And I wanted to start wearing my hair natural.
For this Black woman, she made a conscious decision to go natural to reject the concept that her hair is ugly. Other Black women cite they just wanted to see their curly hair like other Black girls they saw on social media. This cultural struggle self-determination where Black girls are consciously choosing to embrace their hair culture and reject other attempts to police it. The wounds of the struggle are many times overlooked in considering the amount of time and development it takes to persevere to a point of healthy self-definition. Black girls are deciding to define their hair as they look for inspiration from other Black celebrities like Beyonce and Solange. They are inspired by Nicki Minaj and are experimenting with what they call a “bayang.”
Sofia, who grew up in the early 1990s, cites women in hip-hop being a big influence on how she styled her hair.
She described her experience as:
It was kind of the start of hip hop, you know, so, some of the female rappers, I mean, like, this is going way back, but Roxanne Shantae like, everybody, she was so pretty. Yo-yo, you know, these were the ones that okay, they, Yo Yo had braids, and, you know, Roxanne Shantae, I think her hair was kind of had that low Salt n Peppa, kinda lil hairstyle, lil bob like, you know, so it was just, they, it was you were getting your hair done at that time, you know, you had a transition from those plats to, like a cut and a style.
Black girls’ hair is a part of Black culture as a whole. Regardless of whether they choose to wear their hair natural, straight, or in protective styles, Black girls see their hair as a means for expression. When these Black girls that I interviewed decide to give themselves agency over their hair, they are reaffirming Black girl power that Evans-Winter speaks of in her study, through their self-determination to acknowledge their culture.80
Some participants' ability to reject the emotional stress and assault from school settings is remarkable and would suggest to some that policing in school in the end has no harmful impact. However, this sense of agency to self-define that we see from some of the participants is not seen by all. Carly disclosed:
So I have a white boyfriend and a lot of times if I'm going to like a family function that's outside of his immediate family. . . I will kind of, I guess, like polish my hair or make my hair look a certain way to go see those individuals because I don't know how they're gonna perceive me and I think I want to be perceived in I don't know, I want to be perceived as like the token Black girl, I guess you could say. . . . So I'd rather just kind of be as polished as possible. And I don't know, in that, that, in turn, goes back to my hair. So I'll style it to the side or not wear it super big, or, you know, I just kind of catered towards, I guess to the audience I'm gonna go see.
The mental trauma that dates back to her experiences in school, stayed with her and determines her decision-making process regarding her hair. She feared being placed with negative images of Black women and girls, and made a deliberate act to “polish” her hair and in effect, polish her blackness. Carly’s inability to self-define for herself is the disheartening reality for many Black women and girls. She faced emotional stress, verbal assault, and non-verbal assault that ultimately won in the end. While we see those who are able to survive their trauma from school, there are still those who cannot. Their reality is the reason that we must take their policing seriously and create a safe environment for Black girls in school.
A specific form of body policing, hair policing, is plaguing Black girls’ experiences in schools. They are being sent messages that communicate to them that their hair is unacceptable, and they must work to tame it for society’s digestion. These cues are shaping their past, their present, and how they view their future. This can no longer be the typical reality for Black girls. The politics of Black hair is a politic that predates education as we know it in this country. As a Black community, we have confronted the fatal reality of body policing in this country throughout time. We acknowledge that these fatalities are linked to the negative stereotypes society has of blackness. These stereotypes extend in primary and secondary education, and they manifest in how we view Black girls and their hair. The hair politics that Black girls are subjected to through anti-black stereotypes impact their ability to self define.
The purpose of this research is to contribute to the canons dedicated to extrapolating the ways in which Black girls are policed in school settings. My finding concludes that Black girls are mentally strained, verbally and non-verbally assaulted, and that ultimately leaves them wounded as they try to self-define. While the resilience of some can be admired, it is not a quality that should be required of Black girlhood. Black girls deserve to enter school and not combat restraints placed on their beauty and academic ability because of how they style their hair in the morning. Black girls expressed that their hair is a part of their identity for some, but it is not the only makeup of it. Braids, weaves, and afros are not indicators of intelligence. They are, however, indicators of a rich culture within the Black community. When we call Black girls’ hair ghetto, it is bigger than just calling that one person ghetto. By default, you are calling her mother, aunts, cousin, and others in her community, who wear the same styles, ghetto. You are telling her that her culture is subpar. When you tell her that her hair is wild and unprofessional, you communicate that her blackness is wild and unprofessional. This attack on Black girls’ hair must end. Black women in my study recognize that this change is necessary. They expressed how they seek to create this change through rejecting cues enforced on them and encouraging Black girls who come after them to do the same. I want to stress this change is not the burden of Black girls or even Black people in the community.
Further research needs to be taken up to understand school policies and culture to develop procedures to dismantle hair discrimination against Black girls. Schools must do the work necessary to end the sieging of Black girls’ hair.
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Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?New York: Basic Books, 2017. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/[SITE_ID]/detail.action?docID=5368838.