Here's an item that rolls gender anxiety and cultural superiority all into one.
Needville Elementary School in Texas is saying that Adrian Arocha, a 5-year-old Native boy, can't attend school this fall because his hair is too long. The school dress code requires that boys' hair be above the ear and not go below the collar - Adrian and his father, because of religious and cultural practices, have braids that go to their shoulders.
Girls can have long hair.
If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the same policy used by the US government to eliminate Native cultures in the late 19th and early 20th century at Indian boarding schools:
Whether toddlers or teens, they were taken from home and shipped thousands of miles to dreary barracks. Their hair was cut, they were given new names, and each was assigned a number.
The United States government began this brutal attempt at social engineering in 1879. Breaking rebellious Indians by indoctrinating their children in Anglo ways was considered a cost-effective alternative to war. But the personal cost to native Americans was incalculable.[...]
"When they first took us in school, they gave us government lace-up shoes," one woman says. "Then they gave us a number. My number was always 23."
"When you first started school," says another female voice, "They looked at you, guessed how old you were, set your birthdate and gave you an age. Then they assigned you a Christian name. Mine turned out to be... Fred."
The school district has given a few reasons why this policy is in place - hygiene, safety, distraction - but none addresses why girls can have long hair, and cutting hair isn't really the most practical or effective way to address these concerns. But it's not about any of those things; the policy is about letting non-white and non-conforming people know who's in charge.
It's interesting that the school district is picking this fight on hair specifically, considering how many other cultural practices there are that they could discriminate against. Pam says, regarding Don Imus's "nappy headed hoes" comment, "Hair is political."
The status quo is still straightened hair, even though we see more natural styles in vogue now. Black women are unfortunately still chastised by family and significant others not to 1) cut their hair or 2) let it be kinky. It's one of those "dirty laundry" matters that people don't want to discuss openly, but when you have such poisonous, enabled self-loathing, it needs sunlight upon it. Look at this ad. It implies that the woman got the job because her hair was chemically straightened. The self-loathing is so culturally ingrained, so pathological -- there is nothing wrong with our hair, but nearly every signal received by the dominant culture is that it needs to be "corrected."
The message is clear -- kinky hair is not beautiful -- or good for your pocketbook.
The fact that both Indian boys and black women are expected, with strict economic consequences, to conform to white standards when it comes to hair isn't coincidence.
That's probably because hair is one of the most obvious means of expressing our identities, and it's one of the first things that others read on us. The fact that the school district here is making a distinction between boys and girls, at age 5, shows that they're trying to control not just cultural expression (hell, I don't even know if that's what they were thinking when they wrote up the policy; they may have been just so ensconced in Western hair fashion that they didn't think that other cultures have different interpretations of hair styles), but gender performance at a young age.
Digby said pretty much that when writing a few years ago about hair, hippies, and gender anxiety:
A lot of the shrieking aversion to the dirty hippie came from all that "feminine" hair on men's heads and "masculine" hair on women's bodies, if you'll recall. My brother was constantly harrassed about "looking like a girl" in 1966 Mississippi for having hair below his collar. In those days, hair was a political statement and even though forty years have passed and most of those people can only dream about all that hair they no longer have, the right successfully parlayed that gender role anxiety into a political narrative that continues to powerfully effect politics today.
That's men with long hair, who should be disrespected. Women with short hair are a threat:
CALLER: I'm listening to you with the window open. This mean-faced, clipped-hair, liberal type -- you know, the type you always talk about.
[MICHAEL] SAVAGE: Yeah. Yeah.
CALLER: She comes up by my window and she goes, "You're listening to hate speech. Why are you listening to that?" And I go, "Wow, you sound pretty angry." And she goes, "You're listening to hate speech. Look at you, listening to a hatemonger." And then, like, there was other traffic coming, she ended up walking away, and I rolled down the window and I go, "You're a loser." And she just walked away and gave me this smug look. But it was pretty --
SAVAGE: Well, what does that tell you about the loving, kind lesbian who just assaulted you in your car? She's a -- the type that stuffed ovens in Hitler's concentration camps. Whenever I hear anyone preaching to me about how compassionate they are, I reach for my Glock.
Notice how easily a short-haired woman who disagrees with a man turns into a lesbian assaulting a man who ought to be killed. Hair is that political to these people.
And discrimination based on non-gender conforming hair on butch women, lesbian or otherwise, isn't a rare occurrence. Remember Khadijah Farmer, who was kicked out of an NYC restaurant because she used the women's room but looked too masculine, and couldn't even persuade the bouncer she was a woman with photo ID? Something tells me thing would have turned out differently had she had more traditionally feminine hair.
So the fact that the Needville School District has a silly policy based on gendered and cultural hair standards isn't surprising considering the long history behind the regulation of hair. The fact that they seem willing to take it to the courts isn't surprising either - the policy was made to enforce a standard without question.
But Adrian hasn't had his hair cut, ever. There's no need for him to get it cut to go to school, no matter how strange it makes some people feel.
His mother is starting a letter-writing campaign on her blog.