Georgia Elementary School Is Accused of Racial Insensitivity Over Hairstyle Guidelines Display

U.S.|Georgia Elementary School Is Accused of Racial Insensitivity Over Hairstyle Guidelines Display

The display at Narvie J. Harris Theme School in Decatur, Ga., was removed on Thursday, the same day it was put up.

ImageThe display above drew widespread criticism, largely because all that were pictured were black hairstyles.The display above drew widespread criticism, largely because all that were pictured were black hairstyles.CreditCreditCourtesy Danay Wadlington

From New Age box fades to braids, a display on the wall of a suburban Atlanta elementary school tried to illustrate a variety of “inappropriate” haircuts and hairstyles. But there was one thing the children who were photographed had in common: They were all black.

The display by the Narvie J. Harris Theme School in Decatur, Ga., was taken down on Thursday — the same day it had been put up — after being widely criticized as racially insensitive. The episode happened at a time when cities and states across the United States have adopted legislation making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person’s hairstyle.

The faces of the children in the photographs were covered with Post-it notes. It was unclear if they were students at the school, which is 95 percent African-American, according to the state’s Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

The display went viral after Danay Wadlington, the owner of a beauty parlor in the nearby city of Duluth, posted a photograph of it on Facebook after her client, whose child goes to the school, gave it to her. That woman did not want to be identified.

“It wouldn’t have looked so bad if they had included other races,” Ms. Wadlington, who is African-American, said in an interview on Friday. “Those styles are very popular styles. Who says that our hair is not professional? Our hair is part of us.”

The DeKalb County School District, which is Georgia’s third-largest school district and is 64 percent African-American, would not say who had approved the display or who had put it up.

“The poster was the result of a miscommunication relating to appearance rules at the school,” the school district said in an email statement Friday. “Once the district was made aware of the poster, it was immediately removed. In addition, a letter was sent to parents clarifying the school’s dress code and appearance policy.”

The school district declined to elaborate on how the miscommunication happened.

“Directives have been given to school administrators,” the district said in a follow-up email. “Sensitivity training has been scheduled and will be held at the school. The training will be facilitated by staff from our Division of Student Support Services.”

The school is named for Narvie Jordan Harris, a longtime DeKalb County educator whose career began before desegregation, and was referred to as “the black superintendent.” Ms. Harris died in 2009.

The backlash over the display came almost a month after California became the first state to ban racial discrimination against people based on their natural hairstyle.

A few weeks later, New York followed suit, with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signing a law that updated the language of the state’s civil rights law to make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on ethnic hairstyles or hair texture.

New Jersey lawmakers have introduced similar legislation, responding to a high-profile episode last December when a black high school wrestler was forced to either cut his dreadlocks ringside or forfeit the match.

In February, the New York City Commission on Human Rights established new anti-discrimination guidelines for hair that apply to businesses, schools and public accommodations.

Noliwe Rooks, an author and professor at Cornell University whose work explores race and gender, said Friday that the Georgia school’s display illustrates why there is a need for legal protections for hair.

“Those particular styles, and the fact that schools make arbitrary decisions about good and bad hairstyles is long standing across the country and the reason that New York City and the state of California took the actions that they did making such types of bans illegal,” Dr. Rooks said. “The styles that are banned (dread locks and twists for boys and shaved in designs) are sometimes deemed necessary because some people think those hairstyles mean the children who wear them are members of gangs. There is zero evidence of that being the case.”

Dr. Rooks is a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, which is about 17 miles from Narvie J. Harris Theme School.

“What happened in DeKalb,” she said, “is the reason those natural hair ban laws should be expanded across the country.”

Neil Vigdor is a breaking news reporter on the Express Desk. He previously covered Connecticut politics for the Hartford Courant. @gettinviggyFacebook

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