Opinion: Black hair and the debate over culture vs conformity

File photo/Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press / Shelly Smith braids hair at her salon, Braid Heaven, on Jan. 28, 2020, in Kansas City, Kan. The U.S. House on March 18, 2022, voted 235-to-189 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of hair texture and hairstyles like hair that is tightly coiled, curled, or worn in locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, or Afros.

I'm sitting in a barbershop in Nashville one day this year, waiting for my barber to finish up with a client.

This is the first time that I will get braids. I've always enjoyed growing out my hair and occasionally sporting the metal pick (comb) with a black power fist as the handle in my Afro. When I had a flat top, friends called me "Gerald" from the cartoon "Hey Arnold."

Regardless of my hairstyle, it was me. And that made me happy.

Getting braids felt different — I had never had them and they are a cherished hairstyle in the Black community. Once I was in the chair, the barber began to braid my hair. He would pull the braids tight, adding gel after each twist of my hair.

As the barber worked, I looked at the pictures hanging in his shop. There was a picture of NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson sporting his iconic braids. His style captured the culture of the league. And in the moment I was becoming a part of that culture.

"See how you like it," the barber said as he put a mirror in front of me. And there I was, with four beautiful cornrows on my head.

What I saw in the mirror at that moment was joy. That moment reinforced to me the importance of self-expression and how that must be protected.

Culture over conformity

But a recent instance of hair discrimination in a small Texas town that has made national headlines has shed new light on the misuse of power and how self-expression is curtailed.

Darryl George, a junior at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas, received multiple disciplinary action notes and was placed on in-school suspension in early September for wearing his dreadlocks hairstyle in a ponytail pinned on his head.

The school district's student handbook prohibits male students from having hair extending below eyebrows, earlobes or top of a T-shirt collar. The handbook also states that hair must be clean, well-groomed, geometrical and has to be the natural color.

This is the first incident of hair discrimination to be reported in Texas since state lawmakers passed the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) on Sept. 1. The CROWN Act forbids discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyles. It has been passed in 23 states across the country. Tennessee passed the CROWN Act in April 2022. The act was passed in the U.S. House last year but failed in the Senate.

School officials said George was suspended because the length of his dreadlocks violated policy, and noted that the CROWN Act does not mention hair length.

Locally, Hamilton County Schools describe how students should present their hair via dress codes specific to individual schools.

Middle Valley Elementary School in Hixson says that hair "must not disrupt the educational process," according to its online dress code. Hardy Elementary School has a similar code, adding that students' hair must be their natural color. Brainerd, Howard and Red Bank High schools do not have a policy prohibiting certain hairstyles.

Using language such as "disrupt" gives the impression that hair has the ability to take away from educational proceedings.

Greg Poole, the superintendent of the Barbers Hill Independent School District in Texas, supports the district guidelines about hair, asserting that they help students feel part of a community.

"When you are asked to conform ... and give up something for the betterment of the whole, there is a psychological benefit," Poole said in an Associated Press report. "We need more teaching [of ] sacrifice."

Now, Poole might've grown up in the town from the 1984 classic "Footloose" (where residents forbid creative forms of self-expression, like dancing), but clearly he's lost sight of what it means to be an independent, critical thinker.

Poole and others uncomfortable with different hairstyles are missing an opportunity to learn, to appreciate differences, to create understanding.

If a hairstyle creates disruption, maybe the problem is with the person getting "disrupted" over what someone decides to do with their hair.

What if schools spent a little time educating students and staff about diverse hairstyles instead of shaming them?

Nothing connects conformity to being a better student. It is ridiculous for people who live in a country in which freedom and liberty are bone-deep in our DNA to believe that one's personal growth and understanding mean falling in line.

Hair and self-expression

The journey to find yourself, to feel confident in all of what defines you is long and sometimes difficult. Schools must be spaces for for students, especially those who are marginalized, to express themselves.

Sitting in the barber chair and having a fellow Black person braid my hair made me feel like I had found another piece of myself. And I'm sure that feeling is shared by others in the Black community who get their hair done.

What makes hair different from skin color is expression. We can braid, cut, relax and do all sorts of amazing things to our Black hair. It is an extension of who we are and where we have come from — from Africa and decades as enslaved people to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. Through all of it, we have found creativity and joy in our hair.

Our hair is more than a profile or a stereotype.

That legacy should be respected, if not celebrated.

I'm glad I'm a part of it.