Janelle Harris sounds off on the Vanessa VanDyke hair controversy, discusses the responsibility of school administrators to promote self-love in Black children.
You know what lunacy is? Lunacy is telling young Black girls to love themselves, embrace who they are, celebrate their unique individuality…and then beating them down when they attempt to do just that.
You know what irony is? Irony is a Christian school—a Christian school—handing a 12-year-old the ultimatum to either alter the natural hair the good Lord gave her or face expulsion from the educational institution she’s been attending since the third grade.
Yesterday, news broke that Vanessa VanDyke, the adorable little person pictured above, was being given a week to decide whether she’d continue to wear her big, beautiful ‘fro in its big, beautiful state or if she’d acquiesce to the demands of her school, Faith Christian Academy in Orlando. Administrators there made a problem out of her hair and asked her to cut it or straighten it. It is, as they called it, a “distraction.”
With public outrage mounting and the story gaining traction on social media, the powers-that-be swiftly hit a back peddle and said that Vanessa was no longer facing the possibility of expulsion, but they were asking her to style her locks differently. With that solution, I guess they thought that public relations crisis was averted and the fix would please everyone.
Just to bring us up to speed, though: we have kids punching senior citizens in their faces and knocking innocent passersby out cold in the street for sport, we have World Star Hip-Hop battle royals unfolding on public transportation and in school yards, we have underage twerkers peddling their craft everywhere innocent eyes can be accosted by it, but the styling of a child’s hair is a threat to law, order and decency in the purview of Faith Christian Academy educators. Oh. OK.
Now, I’m almost certain that if her hair naturally grew out of her head stick straight, with no coercing or manipulation, it wouldn’t be a distraction at all. It would be pretty, maybe even enviable. Waist-length weaves didn’t become popular because folks don’t appreciate a cascade of luxurious tresses and those who can sprout that kind of length from their scalps are often the object of a whole lot of admiration. Vanessa’s hair however, isn’t that kind of natural. Evidently, it’s the wrong kind of natural.
In a school where the student population is reportedly 26 percent African American, she says she’s been the victim of bullying, though she doesn’t specify whether that crude behavior comes from any one particular group of peers. Most of us know from some kind of experience that Black folks’ self-hatred can burn as bright as other folks’ ignorance, so we can’t assume it’s just White kids poking fun at her. Wherever they’re coming from, those childish insensitivities are being subtly cosigned by authorities who’ve chosen to make an example of the girl who’s being teased, for the same feature she’s being teased about.
Back in September, Tiana Parker, a 7-year-old student at Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa, was told that her beautiful dreadlocks weren’t presentable and violated the dress code policy that states “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” Not that that “faddish” dig wasn’t enough, but here’s the kicker: it’s a predominantly Black school. So when Black administrators and Black educators pass down from on high disparaging labels about Black hair, it sends a hurtful and lasting message to the Black students under their care.
Had the child dyed her hair fuchsia with shaved racing stripes down the sides, we could talk. But they made that baby cry and forced her father to switch her school because her locs didn’t reflect the image they were trying to project. Much like Faith Christian Academy, administrators only saw the err of their prejudices after the public rained shame on them. One-namely me- wonders how often this goes on that doesn’t make the news and how many little black girls and boys are still being put under the impression that Black hair is only good when it’s tied down, weaved up, slicked back, or flattened out.
Education doesn’t happen through textbooks alone and administrators of it have got to do a better job of being consistent and intentional about promoting self-love and protecting the self-image of our children, particularly our girls. Kids spend upwards of 8 sometimes 9, 10 hours at their respective institutions, depending on extracurricular activities and before and aftercare schedules, and that’s a lot of time to have influence over the way they think and feel about themselves.
There’s no room for mixed messages that say love yourself the way you are, except in school where you spend the bulk of your days, except when it goes against the rules and only when we say it’s OK. I commend Vanessa’s parents for raising a young lady who seems to be secure, self-aware and determined to walk in her uniqueness with her head up and her hair high. But this is a fight she shouldn’t have to suit up for.
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