This family fought a West Side school’s black hair style ban – and now Illinois could ban hair discrimination

GARFIELD PARK – When a West Side Preschooler was forbidden by his school to wear his hair in braids, her mother decided to take a stand against the school’s hair policy.

Although the school, Providence St. Mel, has not backed down, the family’s struggle to wear their black hair with pride inspired a state bill that would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on their hairstyle.

The bill drafted by Sen. Mike Simmons (7th) with the Illinois State Board of Education would require schools to remove from their policies and textbooks any language that prohibits students from wearing black hairstyles. The bill was passed overwhelmingly by the state Senate last week and will now go through the House.

High-profile incidents of schools and workplaces cracking down on black hairstyles – including one in North Carolina last week where a softball player was forced to cut her hair during a game – pushed more states to pass laws banning hair discrimination. California, New York and New Jersey were the first states to pass versions of the CROWN Act – Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair – and several other states have passed or are considering similar measures.

But relative Ida Nelson said it was “shameful” that Illinois lawmakers moved faster to tackle a hairline politics rooted in white supremacy and the politics of respectability than a school founded and run. by blacks.

“I am very disappointed that it took so long. Their inaction says a lot about how they really feel about this issue, ”said Nelson. “No child should have to face discrimination based on something that is part of their body – something God has blessed them that makes them especially beautiful.”

State Senator Mike Simmons wears his hair in free-form locs.

“A greater culture of anti-darkness”

Nelson’s 4-year-old son Jett asked him in March to have his hair braided. The preschooler was thrilled to show off his hair to his teacher and classmates, and Nelson was thrilled that his son was embracing his black heritage and “developing his own positive and happy self-image,” he said. she declared.

But Nelson got a call later that day from administrators who told him hairstyling was banned.

“My son keeps asking me when he can have his hair braided. He tells people he can’t have his hair braided because he’s going to be in trouble, ”Nelson said.

School policy is detrimental to the mental health and self-esteem of students, Nelson said, and it encourages young people to hate their bodies and their culture by distinguishing between the traditional hairstyles worn by blacks for centuries. .

The ban forces students to adhere to white beauty standards and reinforces racist stereotypes about people with natural dark hair that lead people to “automatically assume they’re troublemakers, in a gang, until nothing good, ”Nelson said.

Simmons, who proudly wears her hair in free-form locs, wrote the bill banning hair discrimination in schools less than a week after hearing Nelson’s problems with hair policy at Providence St . Email. When he was younger, Simmons would often hear flippant comments from authority figures about his hair, which made him doubt himself, he said.

“I don’t want the next generation of young people to be traumatized like this and feel like there is something wrong with something that is given by God,” Simmons said.

Many non-discrimination laws require individuals to report violations and file complaints before taking action, which often makes them ineffective, Simmons said. But hair discrimination legislation is designed to “put the burden on the system” rather than on individuals. If passed, the Illinois State Board of Education will proactively review textbooks for languages ​​that break the rule, Simmons said.

Providence St. Mel’s hair policy will be revised after the end of the current school year, said principal Timothy Ervin.

“It’s not about disrespecting people or discriminating against people,” Ervin said.

The ban on certain black hairstyles was created by the school’s founder, Paul Adams, in the early 1970s. The rule was designed to ensure student success, Adams said. Providence St. Mel is known to have sent 100 percent of graduates to four-year colleges with competitive scholarships since 1978.

“It was just a matter of clearly trying to be very distinguished in the neighborhood. It’s a pretty rough neighborhood. … I was just trying to make sure our students stood out in the community. It had nothing to do with discrimination, ”Adams said. “I thought it was a professional look.”

But students shouldn’t have to change or assimilate to be successful, Simmons said.

“It’s about being good about yourself and honoring your ancestors,” Simmons said. “There’s this decades-old thinking about how to be successful if you’re black. You have to wear your body in a certain way. You have to wear your hair a certain way. You speak a certain way. And I think this is all hogwash.

Adams is black, and when he participated in the civil rights movement, he kept his hair in a wide afro.

Class of 2001 Salvatorian Abdus-Salam DeVaul also donned a large afro while attending school. But teachers, deans and administrators have often criticized his natural hair “because it doesn’t appeal to a white donor base,” he said.

“These types of policies undermine the African American experience,” DeVall said. “At the heart of our education should be a student’s self-esteem in their identity.

Keli Stewart, of the 1997 class, drew the ire of school officials for having natural hair and for wearing traditional headwear like Nigerian gele.

“Hair policy addresses a larger anti-dark culture,” said Stewart. “I just remember how I felt expressing my black self that this was not the space to do it.”

If the hair discrimination ban passes the state legislature into law, Nelson plans to take the fight to the national stage. Black hair should be appreciated not only for its beauty, but also for the history and cultural symbolism of hairstyles, he said.

“Our ancestors had cornrows that contained maps of freedom. The Locs are a symbol of strength. It’s like a superpower. The fragility of our hair is our protection, ”said Nelson.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America Corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago. Block the Chicago club is an independent, 501 (c) (3) newsroom run by a reporter who covers stories in Chicago neighborhoods.

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David R. Brewer

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