How I Helped Students Reclaim Pride for Their Black Hair With My Curriculum

I believe that my experience with students inside the classroom informs, to a great measure, the work that I do today as a school diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leader. A teacher at heart who values community, I often reflect on my past experiences with students and the ways we explored, celebrated and protected our cultural identity. While there are opportunities to do this within the academic curriculum, my Black students’ cultural identity is often reflected in how they wear and style their hair.

In Black hair, we find art, creativity, history and connection. Black hair carries such dignity and high regard in the Black community that it is often referred to as our crown. At any given moment, I could gaze across the classroom and watch these crowns take the form of braids, Bantu knots, buns, twists, coils, curls, locs, lineups, parts, waves, puffs and afros.

Unfortunately, these crowns, as beautiful and diverse as they are, remain under scrutiny in our school systems. When I come across news reports or a research study that highlights the race-based discrimination that Black students experience in U.S. schools, particularly as it pertains to Black hairstyles, I become angry and agitated. Observing the impact this policing has on Black students, including the students I’ve taught, I feel called to work alongside my students to challenge these systems and racialized perceptions about their hair.

Inevitably, this work settled into our curriculum as I designed a collaborative unit that invited students to explore the historical, social, political, and cultural context of Black hair and how we can reclaim it.

How Black Hair Became Political

“No Colored or Inappropriate Hairstyles Allowed.”

This was the guideline codified in the student handbook of the school I called home during the first two years of my teaching career. During my tenure as an English language arts teacher, I witnessed the policing of Black hair in schools on a systemic and interpersonal level. Students have come to my desk in tears because their hair did not fit the “standard” of what is considered acceptable or appropriate in the school setting, fearful that they would be penalized or publicly shamed.

School policies that racialize traditional Black hairstyles as unkempt and unprofessional have placed targets on Black students that not only impact their self-esteem but also their ability to engage with their academic studies. According to a 2021 research study by Dove, 53 percent of Black mothers revealed that their daughters experienced racial discrimination because of their hair — some as young as five years old. The study finds that these numbers rise for Black children who attend predominantly White institutions.

As we can see from recent news coverage of Black students being suspended or reprimanded for their hair, K-12 schools continue to perpetuate racial discriminatory practices, which adversely impacts Black students’ ability to feel a sense of belonging in their school communities. The issue is not Black hair. The issue is how the system regulates Black hair.

It’s (Not) Just Hair!

From the time I was a child, social norms governed my hair. Whether my mother pressed my hair on the stove with a hotcomb for Easter Sunday or my sister braided my hair into intricate and geometric designs, society marked my hair, and in some cases, considered it a disruption to social order.

I specifically recall being confronted with societal perceptions of Black hair while competing in my high school mock trial competition. Before each competition, I pulled my micro braids back into a tight bun and removed all my hair accessories. Those of us who were Black students on the mock trial team chose hairstyles that did not disrupt the social order or cause a distraction. While we were a highly competitive and reputable team, we still felt the expectation to conform and adhere to social norms that are inherently anti-Black.

I shared these experiences with my students, and unsurprisingly, they could relate. For many of my students, I was their first, and in some cases, their only Black teacher. My students were full of insights and opinions on the topic of Black hair, and our discussions around hair and cultural expression reached depths often unexplored in the classroom setting. Considering my own hair experience in schools and my students’ various responses to hairstyles, I wanted to know more about what hair means to them, what their hair means to their culture, and what it means for them as students.

Always eager to write about themselves and their lived experiences, I immediately changed their morning writing assignment and asked: What is your hair story?

In their responses, I observed a rich tapestry of cultural identity-forming that often goes unexplored and unacknowledged in the education setting. Their stories centered on hair milestones, innovative styling techniques, hair shame and racial profiling they experienced because of their hair.

Seizing the opportunity to expound on their engagement and interest, I started developing a unit that would allow my students to explore their hair story and invite them to build a space that affirms the rich diversity of our hair.

The Black Hair Story Project

For this project I affectionately called “Hair Story”, students were tasked with sharing a story of hair through a historical, social or political lens, working individually or in groups. Exploring, researching, learning and crafting together was a hallmark of this experience. As students were working, there was a group of young ladies developing a spoken word performance that honored the versatility of Black hair in the past, present and future.

“So, Ms. Watson,” Jamaria said excitedly as she approached my desk. “We want to pretend that the stage is a beauty salon and we’re each gonna wear the hairstyles that we’re talking about in the poem. It will be like the hairstyle is talking to the audience.” During their performance, these young ladies introduced, affirmed and celebrated braids, bantu knots, press and curls, and afros through spoken word.

On the other hand, another student, Kenneth, decided to work alone as he interviewed barbers at the barbershop where he got his hair cut with his father every other Saturday. I recall that he began his presentation with a two-minute clip from “The Barbershop”, a comedic drama about a day in the life of a barbershop on the south side of Chicago.

From this clip, we understood the Black barbershop to be a cultural staple in the Black community worthy of investment and protection. Once the clip ended, Kenneth connected this fictional Black barbershop to his own barbershop that he patronized since he was four years old.

With pride and confidence, Kenneth introduced us to the barber staff with photos. He talked about their path to becoming barbers, various barber tools and their function, haircut styles and prices, community support through fundraisers and free haircuts, as well as the steps students can take themselves to become barbers.

While the student handbook created angst and trauma for Black students, we created a safe environment to explore and celebrate this aspect of our cultural identity in the classroom. In our classroom, Black hair was not something to mark as appropriate or inappropriate. Black hair did not come with a list of expectations and consequences. Black hair was free and versatile. Through this process, we were able to reclaim the power of our Black hair.

Protecting Black Hair in Schools

As I reflect on the connections, joy and challenges I experienced as my students and I explored the many facets of Black hair, my hope is that my classroom and my students’ experiences encourage more educators and school leaders to understand: for Black students, hair holds great cultural value and identity expression.

The racial hair discrimination that many Black students face disrupts their learning experience and complicates social identity. For them, we must move away from demanding that they compromise pieces of their cultural identity to fit into a puzzle that is too rigid for their growth and well-being.

We must take action to support Black students’ right to wear their cultural hairstyles without shame or consequence, and we can start by signing the pledge to end hair discrimination in workplaces and schools.

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