When the KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate charter school recently faced backlash from its student body over the school’s policy banning the durag, typically worn by black male students, Dean of Students and School Culture Shauna-Kaye Clarke defended the policy by calling durags “a direct component of the school to prison pipeline.”
“Unfortunately, they are also reflective of some gang culture,” he said. “And they can recede your hairline. That’s not setting you up for success.”
While the school’s executive director said that the tone of the dean’s email was off, he did not say that she was wrong. KIPP, as with other charter management organizations, are founded on a “no excuses” philosophy to “educate” black and brown students.
I’ve worn a durag since middle school and just recently, taught my son how to wear one. I told him why—we wear them to acquire a particular style of hair. However, the use of the durag was not always for such.
I’ve worn a durag since middle school and just recently, taught my son how to wear one.
Historically, the durag for black men, along with the headscarf for black women, was a marker of inferior status, ensuring a fair-skinned slave couldn’t pass for white and deterring white men from engaging in relations with black women. Eventually, black men transformed the durag into a means to keep hair protected from dust and sweat, as well as serve as an expression of black identity. However, to this day the durag remains criminalized, and KIPP Lynn perpetuates this with its discriminatory policy.
I wouldn’t wear a durag to work and I wouldn’t allow my son to wear one to school. The problem isn’t students being prohibited from wearing a durag at school as part of a dress code, but rather the rationale provided. Had the dean stuck with the company line that it was a dress code rule, this would be cut and dry. But the dean described durag use as 1) a component of the school to prison pipeline, 2) reflective of gang culture, 3) harming your hair, and 4) an unsuccessful means of preparing yourself for the world.
The dean connected durag use to gang culture, harming your hair, and an unsuccessful means of preparing yourself for the world. Wrong on all counts.
The school to prison pipeline involves the disproportionate disciplining of black students using exclusionary tactics like suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement. In fact, black students are referred and arrested in school at higher rates than any other racial category. To blame school to prison pipeline on black culture is hypocritical given that the existence of the pipeline itself is a mechanism of white racism.
According to the National Gang Center, there is no formal definition of a gang. A gang is a social group, and like all social groups, including Greek organizations or school alumni associations, they create and appropriate all types of cultural items and customs in order to establish, promote and sustain themselves. But durags are not synonymous with gangs and have a rich cultural history.
While black men can have a receding hairline, durags are not the culprit. At fault is genetics and a sensitivity to hormones. I can personally attest that cornrowed or braided hair puts black men at greater risk of a receding hairline than wearing a durag.
Lastly, using the durag to achieve wavy hair is a cultural staple in the black community. I may go a day or two without taking my durag off if I have a job interview or date night with my wife. Hair styling preparation is, and has always been, a major part of looking and feeling your finest. To say that a durag sets up a black man for failure is ignorant, at best.
But it is not enough to say that school officials should be more careful about how they communicate or convey institutional policies regarding dress codes.
The argument for not wearing a durag is well documented, but often falls into the trap of respectability politics, which dictate that marginalized people must act like their oppressors to “get ahead.” Not wearing a durag will not prevent young black men from feeling the impact of racism in their lives, whether that means losing a job opportunity or losing his life during a “routine” traffic stop.
What’s important here isn’t whether or not durags should be allowed in schools. Rather, it’s understanding that schools are white institutional spaces—the majority of teachers and administrators in public schools are white, and curricula themselves are often centered around whiteness. In the case of KIPP, a school that is 87% black and Latino students, understanding this is vital.
The criminalizing of the durag falls prey to a fear of black men; a fear built on white guilt and insecurity. It’s the impetus for the NBA banning du-rags, not because it is a “safety hazard,” but to protect white consumers. Fear of black men permeates all parts of our lives, from college campuses, multibillion dollar corporations, and school districts.
Criminalizing the durag falls prey to a fear of black men; a fear built on white guilt and insecurity.
Throughout American history, our nation’s institutions have enacted various policies to promote black inferiority. Black people have turned such policies on their heads, taking ownership of institutional restrictions meant to demean them, and using them to affirm their humanity and blackness.
Then, to recapture the narrative, institutions either appropriate such policies for their benefit, or criminalize and penalize black behavior to both put whites at ease while commanding compliance from black people. The use of a durag by black men, and its subsequent criminalization, is one such example.
The politics of black hair is real. In the past, we’ve seen the U.S. Army ban traditional black hairstyles, black girls be threatened with suspension or expulsion over their hair, and even Colin Kaepernick be told that he should cut his afro to get a job in the NFL.
Unfortunately, ours is a world where even “educated” folks are ignorant with respect to black culture. But here’s a tip for educators: you should not attempt to police black culture in the name of getting black and brown kids to comply with white sensibilities. Rather you should attempt to police your own biases and prepare your students to challenge the world on the norms of culture.