I’m going to tell you a story. It’s not a nice story.
My private girls’ high school was rather strict on the uniform rules. Jumpers were not to be worn on public transport because they look sloppy. Hair ties were to be in school colours or match one’s hair – unless, I guess, your hair was black, because one wasn’t allowed to wear black hair ties. (Asian students, the largest minority group in the school, apparently didn’t exist, except if one had dyed her hair, in which case the administration got very loud about immediately changing it back. Rock and a hard place.) Jewellery wasn’t to be worn, except for watches with plain straps or necklaces with cross pendants. Dresses were to be long enough to touch the floor when one was kneeling. Food wasn’t to be eaten outside of school whilst in uniform, both because we might spill something and because, I kid you not, eating looks inelegant. We wouldn’t want to reflect badly on the school.
There was one rule, however, that was a particular source of contention: the circumstances under which students were to tie their hair back. The idea was that long hair might get too close to other students’ heads, making it easier to pass on lice. When I arrived at the school, the rule was that if a student’s hair was long enough to touch her shoulders, she had to tie it back. At some stage, the requirement changed to hair that was long enough to touch one’s collar.
Now, my giant curly hair was at collar length or a little shorter towards the end of high school, and I usually kept it tied up in ponytails and plaits. Sometimes, however, I stuck in hairpins or tied the front parts back in a half-pony. I got several reproofs from teachers asking me to tie my hair back, to which I responded that it was tied back, and pointed out the objects keeping it back. They all awkwardly kept quiet after that. Possibly they stopped reproving me because they knew I was correct, possibly because they knew there was something not quite right about the rule, possibly because my Strange Foreign Origins were a gossip topic among the staff (oh, I wish I was joking, but that school was so very white), also possibly because I had, shall we say, something of a reputation for never, ever backing down when I thought the administration was in the wrong. I never pointed it out, or properly articulated it to myself, but wearing my hair in this way, while absolutely within the school rules, was also a little act of rebellion. I did it because I knew that the rule was designed to police certain kinds of hair as well as lice.
I remember one lice plague that happened in my year group, during which most of my classmates were sent home on one memorable afternoon. I of the big hair was one of the few who wasn’t sent home. I hadn’t contracted lice simply because I had only had my hair against that of one other student that day. Whether lice is passed on is more a function of social behaviour than hair type. Nobody was out to regulate the close physical contact that is socially encouraged between teenage women and girls. Lice was a risk, sure, as it is in any school, but the ways in which that risk was mitigated speak to broader societal attitudes more than anything else. Non-white students, of course, were most likely to be the ones with non-conforming hair. Resultantly, white students weren’t physically separated from each other; they were psychologically separated from potentially diseased non-white others.
There was a girl of Caribbean descent in the year below me, who was probably the only black girl in the entire high school. Her hair was well above collar length. This student was personally instructed by the principal that she was not allowed to wear her hair out.
This girl’s body was controlled because the white woman thought her black body should be subject to special regulation or she would spread disease.
After all, we wouldn’t want to reflect badly on the school.
Certain history teachers and students in particular might have looked a little askance at that one. It’s the one time I ever heard a staff member openly call another racist. I only learned about this special one student only rule when we got a new principal, who told this student that she could wear her hair out if she pleased.
Now, the former principal’s actions were explicitly, openly, outrageously racist. It was the offshoot, however, of a rule that on the surface appeared to be equitable: if we’re all in uniform, everyone is treated the same, right? Not so much: this rule was intended for the white students who comprised most of the population, and the subtext was that anyone without uniform hair was going to be subject to extra body policing. The rule was one more manifestation of the attitude that this kind of school is for the right kind of young lady: the white, middle class, Christian kind.
Rules that seemingly are about regulating one thing are often more about regulating quite another. It’s important to realise that rules that purport to treat everyone in the same, fair way often take their idea of an acceptable norm from what society takes as an acceptable norms. What is socially normative is rooted in discriminatory hierarchies. That big, curly and kinky hair is seen as unruly, dirty, diseased, and something to be regulated isn’t a function of hair type, it’s a function of the ways in which that hair type is understood in a racist society. It’s unacceptable to subject anyone to those attitudes, but particularly not young people under one’s care. Especially not when a teenage girl has to walk into school every day having everyone around her know that the woman responsible for her education thinks she’s dirty.
Let’s just say that they taught us a lot in high school that they didn’t intend to impart.