Vanessa Van Dyke, a 12 year-old student at Faith Christian Academy in Orlando, Fla. recently faced expulsion for her naturally curly hair after her mother approached the school regarding students bullying Vanessa over her “puffy” hair.
Rather than solely punishing the students bullying Vanessa over her hair, the school deemed Vanessa’s hair “distracting,” saying her hair did not fit within the guidelines of the dress code. If she did not choose to change the natural state of her hair, such as straightening it or using product, she would face expulsion.
However, after considerable press regarding the situation surfaced, the school revoked its threat of expulsion, allowing Vanessa to keep her natural hairstyle and continue at the academy.
While Vanessa regards her hair as “unique,” the societal pressures surrounding her hair are anything but. Vanessa’s desire to maintain her natural hair, and ultimately her individuality, is overpowered by society’s tendency to repress what is particular to her race and identity. The threats and bullying surrounding Vanessa’s hair represents our culture’s long history of placing restrictions on what is part of someone’s identity. In standing by her hair, Vanessa resists American culture’s subversive pressure for African-American women to straighten and modify their hair.
The stigma surrounding Vanessa’s hair begs the question: why does a hairstyle carry so much weight in our society?
When an African-American woman chooses her hairstyle, she has to be aware of the critiques from other African-Americans and white people alike. If she decides to straighten her hair, then she’s seen as losing some degree of her African-American self, but if she embraces her natural hair, she faces the scrutiny and judgement of white people. No matter which route an African-American woman takes, she’s cut off at the pass.
The disdain surrounding “unconventional” or “unique” hair is a reality for many Americans. A situation similar to Vanessa’s garnered media attention this past September when seven-year-old Tiana Parker was sent home from an Oklahoma charter school for having dreadlocks — a violation of the school’s dress code. The young girl and her family were emotional over the school’s reaction to her hairstyle, seeing as Tiana styled her hair in dreadlocks since she began attending the school.
“Afros” and other “faddish” hairstyles, as they were referred to by the Oklahoma charter school’s dress code, were among the other restrictions on students’ hairstyles. Just by referring to “afros” and “dreadlocks” as “faddish,” it’s evident the school does not recognize the long-standing history surrounding African-Americans hairstyles and how the term “faddish” strips an entire race of its cultural past.
Although we cannot speak from the perspective of an African-American woman, everyone internalizes these conceptions of what is appropriate for someone’s race, whether it be through a hairstyle, clothing or any other form of superficiality.
From a young age, as evident in the cases of both Vanessa and Tiana, African-American girls are psychologically affected by being othered and having to be aware of both what they are and what they are not — how black they are and how white they’re not. These girls receive images of straight, processed hair from African-American celebrities and role models like Halle Berry, Beyonce and Kerry Washington, leading them to believe success as an African-American woman hinges on socially constructed white standards of beauty.
Each of these cases set standards on the way African-Americans embrace their natural hairstyles, and lends to the overarching theme of racial and cultural oppression still present in America.
Many men and women in this country with afros, dreadlocks or any other stylized form of hair not straight or processed face the same societal standards as these two young girls when going to interviews or work.
African-American singer-songwriter India Arie puts it best in her song “I Am Not My Hair,” when she professes “I am not my hair / I am not this skin / I am not your expectations, no.” While society may place borders and pressures around something as basic as hair, it’s important to remember hair does not define a person. Vanessa, Tiana and the millions of others ensnared within this societal trap should ultimately be afforded the choice to keep their hair natural or style it any way they choose.