“Momma, will you give me Black girl magic hair?” This is a refrain I hear often from my eight-year-old daughter when it’s time for styling – to be clear she’d like a “twist out.” She loves her curls, her crown, her magic. In addition to encouraging use of her academic and artistic gifts, I go to great lengths to love on her physical features and to highlight why they are special, magnificent and worthy of praise. In the last two weeks, though, both my eight and 12-year-old daughters have been grappling with white students wanting to touch and play with their hair without their consent, a circumstance my 14-year-old daughter has managed to navigate well. My immediate mental calculation has been to consider how I help them to shut that down with confidence, without facing backlash or getting into trouble, resulting in unfair discipline when demanding their sovereignty. Like so many other Black parents, I know that Black children can get into trouble at school simply for being themselves and for asserting their right to do so.
In the waning weeks of the 2017 school year, we’ve heard stories that are all too familiar about the bodies and essence of Black girls being policed by schools in immoral and violent ways, from clothing choices to hairstyles. When I read about sisters Deanna and Mya Scott being told their (historically meaningful) representation of themselves through their hairstyles is a distraction to other students, I became frustrated and angry – a perpetual state these days. Discipline of Black and Brown children based on a different set of standards than their white peers cannot continue. Further, and perhaps more importantly, discipline of Black and Brown children by people who look like them, insisting they conform to a mainstream cultural standard that will not protect their lives or make them more successful, must cease immediately.
Too often, Black girls have their mere existence interrogated and problematized in subtle yet traumatic ways that don’t seem to result in a heightened call for action, much less the follow-up they deserve. Building on their 2015 Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls report, The National Women’s Law Center recently released the report highlighting the many ways girls of color are subjected to unfair and harsh discipline, preventing them from experiencing school as an uplifting and affirming environment. When we hear that Black girls are suspended from school at 3 – 6 times the rate of their white peers for the same infractions or, in some cases, for nonsensical things like disrespect, hairstyles or fit of their clothing, we must be alarmed and moved to act. Alarmed because, while it may not always manifest as incarceration as it often does for our boys, being out of school may translate into life sentences in other abusive systems and situations like human trafficking.
Who has a right to be at school as their full selves? If we’re serious about creating schools that see and honor each of our students, we need to engage in critical dialogue about who is and who isn’t valued in the schoolhouse. Perhaps then we will prioritize policies, practices, teacher recruitment and family engagement that supports all our students. Excellence and equity in access to opportunity in schools will only exist where there are intentional efforts to disrupt narratives, and by extension, behaviors by adults that relegate our daughters to suffer in silence and alone, or worse, punishes them for daring to live freely.
***Other than her most important role as mom, Khalilah M. Harris serves as Policy Director for EduColor. She is also Chief of Staff & VP of External Affairs at Opportunity@Work, a national non-profit making it possible for all Americans to work, learn and earn to their fullest potential. Prior to this role, she served in the Obama Administration providing leadership to promote diversity & inclusion in the federal workforce preceded by being the first deputy director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.