In the wake of yet another attack on black girls, St John’s Senior School has decided to reverse their decision to unashamedly regulate black hair and revise their former statements.
If you’ve missed the latest segment on how else can we police black identities, here’s a full recap:
A letter from St. John’s Senior School dated 12th September, went viral after twitter user BeeBabs posted the letter online. This letter included a list of several restrictions, each specifically targeting black girls and their hair, in order “to ensure that every pupil looks neat, tidy and presentable.” Among the list of demands were “single plaits only, all plaits to be thin to medium only, knotless braids only, natural hair colour only, cornrows or knotted braids will not be permitted, all extensions must be tied in a ponytail at all times, hair must be worn no longer than shoulder length.” This undeniably discriminatory policy lead to over 6,000 shares online and an outpouring of shocked, angry and justifiably, outraged responses on Twitter.
By the following day, Alexander Tardios (the school’s headteacher), issued a statement claiming that “in light of concerns raised by a number of parents and pupils…while we believe it is appropriate to place a restriction on hair length, our proposals would be unduly restrictive on the styles girls may wish to adopt.” With this statement, Tardios confirmed that the former list of restrictions would not be implemented and that length and neatness would be the only factors monitored.
While it is promising that they’ve reversed their decision, make no mistake, this is most definitely a glass half empty situation. Had the letter not gone viral and received such a backlash, St John’s would most likely be sticking to their word and arguing that cornrows and braids are “for outside of school, not inside.” I mean they do have a point, God forbid someone actually came to school wearing medium to large braids, all hell would break loose…
This letter was a direct attack against the black students, trying to unashamedly suppress both their individuality and their blackness. I am yet to understand how cornrows or *drum roll* even knotted braids would have any impact on the students’ ability to learn, which clearly is not the school’s priority in this case. The letter explained that there was a surge in hair extensions being worn to school and this was their attempt to address the “issues surrounding this way of wearing one’s hair”. Maybe I’m missing something, but I am unable to locate the so called issues here. I don’t see how wearing hair extensions to school would impede anyone’s ability to focus, nor can I ascertain how these hairstyles aren’t presentable or acceptable enough to simply come to school and learn!
What this school is failing to understand is that hair is a form of self-expression and an extremely important avenue for black girls to explore our own identities, but it is also so much more than that. Hair extensions aren’t simply for “fashion” as this school seems to believe. Braids and cornrows are a very effective way of protecting our hair, as they eradicate the need for daily manipulation which leads to unnecessary breakage. Also, the fact that these hairstyles can be worn for several weeks, saves us so much time and energy each day that can be used for other things. Lord knows black hair is no easy feat…
Furthermore, in a world that prioritises Eurocentric beauty standards, donning natural hairstyles as opposed to wearing weaves/wigs or relaxing/straightening your hair, can be a daunting step to take, but is one that often leads to a more positive self-image. So to embrace your natural curls and go to school with cornrows/braids shouldn’t be considered an issue, it’s both a practical and respectable choice. And quite frankly, is a choice that shouldn’t even concern the school.
School should be a safe space where students always feel welcomed, yet these young girls were singled out and expected to minimise their blackness in order to look more “presentable”. As if braids were so unruly that they’d tarnish the school’s reputation, we are literally talking about plaits here… Caucasian students unsurprisingly, were given no letter or set of rules to follow, deeming them fit to learn no matter how they arrive. You’d think it would go without saying but having one set of rules for black students and another for everyone else isn’t righteous, it’s reactionary.
For those who have wondered why cultural appropriation can be such an issue or why it can trigger people of colour, the St John’s letter is a great place to start. We do understand that everything culturally black is in fashion and that when people from other cultures want to wear braids, cornrows or even dreadlocks, this often comes from a place of admiration. However, it’s so frustrating when we are consistently targeted and penalised, while many non-black people who decide to adopt these looks, gain recognition and reverence.
Whether it’s a letter from your school trying to harness your blackness or your workplace suggesting that your hair is unkempt in its natural state, this is the treatment that we face on a daily basis for simply being ourselves. So when Nikita Dragun wore box braids to New York Fashion Week a few weeks back or Kim Kardashian rocked cornrows and started a trend last year, it is difficult to be supportive or even impartial when we’re aware of the repercussions that we can face for our very own hairstyles. Especially when the appropriator makes no attempt to address the problem and acknowledge this disparity.
Black culture is a novelty that others explore if and when they please, but for us it’s our reality, and it’s a reality that’s often peppered with ignorance, judgement and far too many microaggressions to count. St John’s is just one example of this, but it’s such a clear example of how even in 2019, a London based institution can so blatantly and publicly attack black girls. Yes, they have retracted their statement but this was clearly a PR move aiming to minimise the negative attention the school was receiving. This was by no means an altruistic decision made on behalf of these young black girls.