Blaming Nature (On Vanessa VanDyke, Rihanna, and Natural Hair)

Jose Vilson Jose

2013 American Music Awards - Backstage And Audience

Rihanna at the AMAs

In the hood, I’ve seen girls and women rock doobie wraps to tuck in a hairstyle they’ll show off the next day. It’s akin to wearing rollers or, for guys, wearing a doo-rag before gelling their waves. As someone who doesn’t have much hair, I always smirked at the doobie, a rather creative and neat way of keeping a woman’s hair tucked in before a big party or a graduation. Even to this day, I see some of my girls wear doobies on the day of the prom, with black bobbi pins glistening with the classroom light.

Yet, the doobie wrap became the hot topic of the day because Rihanna, pop ultrastar, decided to break the “code” of wearing a non-hairstyle out to an awards show with a studded pin to boot. I didn’t think it was that big a deal, especially since I see women wearing it in public so often. A neatly-placed doobie to an awards show is a natural progression in hair style, akin to how a few rappers have worn doo-rags to similar awards shows. Yet, men don’t get the same type of attention women do for their hair choices, or the heightened blowback if someone sees a fashion faux-pas.

This conversation extended into classroom today when Vanessa VanDyke, a student at Faith Christian Academy in Orlando, FL, was given an ultimatum: fix your hair or leave our school.

Legally, this school can do whatever it wants in the way of conduct or grooming, it seems, including hairstyles and the like. Their code of conduct has a broad brush of unacceptable hairstyles “that include, but are not limited to, mohawks, shaved designs and rat tails.” Parents who take their children to private school, religious or otherwise, know that they’re not just sending their child to a presumably elite school, but also buying into the culture and status of the school. For children of color entering into predominantly White schools, this means they are often asked to assimilate to a greater extent to the predominant culture and their ways.

Having said that, just because it’s legal doesn’t make it legit.

What really got me about the article was this tidbit here:

VanDyke said she’s had her large, natural hair all year long, but it only became an issue after the family complained about students teasing her about her hair.

“There have been bullies in the school,” said Kent. “There have been people teasing her about her hair, and it seems to me that they’re blaming her.”

“I’m depressed about leaving my friends and people that I’ve known for a while, but I’d rather have that than the principals and administrators picking on me and saying that I should change my hair,” said VanDyke.

So, administrators are complicit in the bullying of a young Black girl? If I read that right, and if administrators only told her to change her hair because bullies pushed their buttons to do so, then the administrators are no better than the bullies. Sadly, I keep seeing stories about girls and their hair, hoping someone will actually get it right. Instead, schools have been asked to impose a ridiculous grooming code concerning the hair that grows naturally out of a girl’s hair.

As a teacher, I have a duty to judge someone’s look to an extent. I still think of Nixzmary Brown and how her murder could have been prevented if people had noticed the signs of her abuse early. If I have concerns about a child’s hygiene or change of appearance for legitimate reasons, we have protocols in place, none of which prevent the child from being their best selves.

My job, however, isn’t to teach for appearance. It’s to keep my door open, despite and because of how they look. Too many of us misplace our “caring” by making sure everyone looks the same, acts the same, or speaks the same. Yet, as Vanessa VanDyke proves, we should do our best to accept all children because of their differences and accept that all people may come in different shapes and colors.

As Bill Ivey said on my page, “And third, how good she looks is utterly beside the point. It’s her appearance, her choice. End of story.” Rihanna can have her doobie. I’ll get my shape-up. She’ll leave her hair natural. We’re all fully human. Let’s do better.


*** photo c/o ***