Black Codes and Dress Codes: Will Black Hair Always Be Against the Rules?


Graduation season is here—that time of year when we get to celebrate academic achievements, watch with anticipation as the graduates move on to life’s next step, and hear about all the students being banned from prom and graduation for dress code violations.


As a jolting end to that list, we’re hearing more stories of students who are being punished near the close of the school year for their clothes or hair. These instances are typically about female students (because let’s face it, dress codes are pretty much only about women’s fashion and beauty), and more often than not about students of color.

Earlier this month, we learned of black teen twins in Massachusetts who were banned from prom and extracurricular clubs for wearing braided hair extensions. A popular protective style for naturals, the braids were said to be against the school’s rules against hair extensions, distracting hairstyles and hair higher than 2 inches.

Knowing what we know about black hair growth—that tightly coiled or kinky hair grows up and out instead of down, and that the use of extensions like box braids allows for healthy hair growth—this rule sounded extremely targeted toward students of color, specifically black students. The school has since suspended all punishments and promised to rework the policies, but the larger concern is cultural education and addressing the biases that breed school policies targeting black students.

Author Obiagele Lake discusses the connection between black codes from the Reconstruction era and the mandated appearance codes that we see in the present day in her 2003 book, Blue Veins and Kinky Hair: Naming and Color Consciousness in African America. After the Civil War, Southern states passed black codes as a means of limiting newly freed African Americans and pushing free blacks to continue to work in labor-intensive industries.

The book touches on the internalized negative images carried through black generations created from involuntary lives in a white supremacist culture. Some of these codes were so specific that they targeted the types of patterns and clothes that black people were able to wear, citing them as an effort to help newly freed blacks “fit in” with their new environment. All the while, the codes continued to limit the freedom of identity and cultural expression that had been stifled through enslavement.


We hear similar reasoning behind school dress code policies, that they are an effort to decrease obvious income disparities or differences that might distract others in a learning environment—giving students a visual level playing field and contributing to school unity. But a 2014 study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center (pdf) and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund reported that black girls are fives times more likely to be suspended from school than their white female counterparts (only 17 percent of the school population, black girls make up 43 percent of those receiving disciplinary action). When we look at the targets of dress codes and bias toward mandating the appearance of girls, these numbers aren’t surprising at all.


Systematic discrimination is a major problem. But what about the long-term effects on our children? I spoke with Adrianne Pettiford, a published research psychologist who studies discrimination in schools as well as racial-identity development, particularly among black youths. When asked about the effects of being discriminated against or “picked on” based on racial characteristics like hair or skin color, Pettiford explained that bullying of any nature may have many effects (e.g., anxiety, physical aggression, academic disengagement, low self-esteem, etc.). Yet “[w]hen bullying is racially motivated, there are additional potential consequences—the child may internalize the messages of their bullies and come to feel that being black is a negative characteristic,” she said.

Pettiford noted that while she does not specifically study the connection between dress code violations and racial identity, she is definitely aware of the disparity in punishment of black children compared with their white counterparts. She commented that “this disparity fuels the academic disengagement of black female students and contributes to their contact with the juvenile justice system and subsequent adult offending. The school-to-prison pipeline often is discussed when speaking of black male youths, but it is also a reality for our girls.”


I asked Pettiford what advice she would give to parents wanting to advocate and address their children’s feelings, since we have some understanding of how our children may be affected by punishment connected to their appearance. She suggested that “parents be intentional about ensuring social media and popular media are not the only sources of racial messages their child receives.”

“With regard to racial socialization [the practice of teaching children about the meaning and personal implications of race], a combination of conveying both the positive aspects of being black and how to handle instances in which they encounter racial bias seems to work best,” she said. “For example, a parent might discuss with their teenager how to respond when told their natural hair is problematic before such an issue ever occurs, and help plan appropriate responses.”


In popular culture, black natural hair is “on trend.” Mainstream media has picked up on the perceived coolness of some types of black hair, and we see an increase in representation. However, for many black women, our hair has been anything but cool for the majority of our lives. Regardless of the celebration we may see now, there is a lifetime of hate and pain wrapped around our natural hair texture and the way we have been treated because of it.


To be told that your natural self (a “self” that many of us have spent the majority of our lives learning to love and accept) is a fad, is extreme or is exaggerated can be dehumanizing. Where is the code banning blond hair? We would be up in arms at someone’s personal preference of acceptable beauty being made into a hard-and-fast rule for all women to follow.

This is what is being asked of black girls and women—to take a cultural standard as rule and change ourselves to fit in. The Transportation Security Administration still pats down my hair every single time I travel—all while I am watching white women with buns and updos walk through untouched. We are tired of being prohibited, especially while being told that it is to help us fit in or to avoid distracting others. Our natural selves are not against the rules.

Shayna Watson is a writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she now lives in a shoebox apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. filled with shoes.


I think a woman of color ought to be able to wear her hair the way that she pleases. I wouldn’t want my children going to the school stated above. Women of color are beautiful creatures with extensions or letting it natural. I have mixed kids, they have good hair however it’s more on the black side then white. My son embraces his afro as to where my daughter wears the extensions. I myself prefer the all natural but is not for me to choose. I love them no matter how they have their hair. So in closing I say to black women everywhere “embrace your beauty and don’t worry wat the “white folks” say or think. You are beautiful women and society has no right to tell you how to wear your hair.”

Sincerely. Cassie