Over the last few years we have been hearing the stories of students of color being humiliated and forced out of school because of their hair. Most times we only read about the story or hear from the victim afterward, but this time it was different. This time we watched the painful incident in real time and it wasn’t a child being sent home, but video of the pain a student-athlete was going through while having to decide between his identity and his team. It was a video of a student-athlete of color feeling the true effects of racism one snip at a time. In case you haven’t heard the story, in New Jersey, a student-athlete of color was told by a referee that he had to cut his dreads or forfeit his match as, “According to a letter from the school district Superintendent David Cappuccio Jr., the wrestler chose to have his hair cut rather than forfeit the match Wednesday after the referee told him his hair and headgear were not in compliance with league regulations.” His hair and headgear were not in compliance with the league regulations. Interesting. As I look in the NFHS wrestling rules on hair, I come across 4.2.1, the ruling on hair which is located at the top of the page.
This story is so fascinating because the student-athlete was following 4.2.1 and had a legal hair covering, but the referee deemed it illegal and immediately stated he had to cut his hair or forfeit the match. The hair covering was there, but why wasn’t it deemed legal? Why did his coaches allow him to wear an “illegal” hair covering? If they felt this hair covering was legal why weren’t they fighting for the student-athlete? Cut your hair or forfeit. Over a wrestling match. Cut your identity or forfeit. I searched the internet to find the grooming rule information from 2010 and let me tell you, it was ridiculously hard to find. What interested me was that it stated in bold, “Coaches, police your wrestlers so the officials will not have to embarrass them by requiring them to cut their hair, shave, etc.” Where were the coaches during this whole situation? Are coaches not there to protest and look out for student-athletes?
I am not sure of any other sport in which you are told you have to cut your hair in order to play. I have never heard of this and I especially never heard of this happening to a white student-athlete. Many say race isn’t an issue as the referees have cut other white student’s hair. But I always ask what would have to happen for race to be part of the issue, and it can’t be the ugly over 1950s racism of the past. No, we have to look at what racism currently looks like. Current racism that is so covert that it had adults standing all around not saying a word to help this student-athlete of color. Racism that had his teammates trying to cheer him up or a reporter calling him the teammate of the year for doing this. Racism that had no one questioning why his hair covering wasn’t legal. Racism that didn’t have the adults around attempting to find a legal hair covering for this student-athlete of color. Racism that did not think to question the referee and this decision. Racism is that covert and insidious. It allows things to happen to student-athletes of color that many white parents or coaches wouldn’t allow to happen to their children without an argument. How were no questions asked and this was the ONLY acceptable solution?
We have to start looking at racism in a different way. The racism of the past is not the racism of the current or even the future. It will evolve and shift as much as we do. If we do not look for how it shifts we will not be asking the correct questions. Instead we won’t ask any questions at all and immediately assume it is everything but race because crosses weren’t burned and the n-word wasn’t said. Society and white people have this interesting fascination with not only the hair of students of color, but finding ways to control it. Our children are sent home from school because their hair has braid extensions, braids, or dreadlocks. Black hair is deemed to be against school code, out of control, faddish, and many other terms that say your black hair is not like our Eurocentric view of what hair should be and do, so therefore it is wrong. Hair is expected to be straight and lay flat.
What troubles me the most is there was no one that stood up for this student-athlete of color. No one was willing to say not only is this wrong but the racist connotations that will come with this will be devastating. We do not see these types of things happen to white student-athletes. We do not see white students being sent home because of their hair. We do not see them not being able to go to certain schools because of their hair. We do not see them having to decide between identity and sport. We do not see someone stepping in front of student-athletes of color because a situation feels or looks wrong. A few questions could have made this whole situation avoidable. A coach or administrator looking out for the welfare of the student-athlete of color instead of calling him a great teammate could have avoided this situation. But it doesn’t seem that student-athletes of color are worth the confrontation. They aren’t worth someone stepping up to an official or referee to ask for other ways this situation could be avoided other than the two ends of the spectrum that are both devastating. Because make no mistake about this. This is devastating.
Rules, policies, and procedures need to start being looking at. Questions need to be asked about the origin of rules and if they will affect certain groups more than others. We have to take a hard look into why these rules were formed in the first place, who decided on them, and what changes can be made to make them more inclusive. If we consistently live and die by rules that were formed by a dominant group with a dominant narrative then we will consistently have these types of issues. The rules need to be discussed by a committee with a wide variety of people. Not only of race, but gender, religion, ethnicity, and class. Having people in the room with different experience will give rules a different viewpoint. Why can’t someone where a hijab? What are the affects of everyone having to wear the same length of tights on the volleyball team? If beach volleyball players can only wear bikinis who is being left out? If the whole team has to wear long or short sleeves does it mean that everyone has to conform to one person, or the one person regardless of religion has to conform to the team? What is the impact on deciding that certain types of hair are illegal? Who is responsible for making sure student-athletes have legal hair coverings? What are the steps that should occur before hair is cut? Who decided on this dumb rule that an athlete must CUT THEIR HAIR OR FORFEIT A GAME. What committee decided this was acceptable and then voted on it to make it a rule?
We have to start looking at how our students of color are treated because of their hair and discuss the ways in which it allows covert racism to live. We have to discuss how covert racism lives when people do nothing, when they do not challenge those who are deemed “in charge”, when they go with the status quo because they do not want to make waves. When rules affect our student-athletes of color we have to ask more questions. We cannot allow rules that will affect the hair of students of color to go unchallenged because “that is how it has always been.”
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