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Originally published September 8, 2013 at 3:58 PM | Page modified September 9, 2013 at 7:32 AM

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The politics of a black girl’s dreadlocks at an Oklahoma school

An Oklahoma school’s decision to dismiss a black girl because of her hair props up a racist practice, argues columnist Lynne K. Varner.

Times editorial columnist

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I feel for the seven-year-old Tulsa, Okla., girl whose recent first day at school turned into her last after administrators deemed her hairstyle unacceptable.

The girl wore short, barely discernible locs, also known as dreadlocks. The school’s dress code forbids dreadlocks, Afros, mohawks and other “faddish styles,” that they fear could distract from a “respectful and serious” learning environment.

Some would defend those rules as no different from bans on micro-minis or navel-grazing shirts. It’s different. It props up a racist practice of schools judging black kids mostly, and also Latinos and Southeast Asians, as unkempt or undisciplined because of the way they style their hair.

It is hard to believe that a half-century after Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of children judged by the content of their character, some continue to be judged by their hair, and by extension, skin color.

Schools turning themselves inside out to improve and better educate kids of color ought to take long hard looks at their disciplinary policies. Local school districts, followed by state officials and most recently, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office on Civil Rights, are putting schools on notice that they have gone beyond disciplining minorities kids — sometimes they’re picking on them.

It is understandable why many black parents have trouble trusting and in turn investing in their public schools.

The message sent to the Oklahoma girl, and too many young black girls, is that there is something wrong with natural, kinky-curly hair. It can be viewed as unkempt. Unconsciously or not, we do not treat people we view as unkempt or sloppy with respect.

I’m happy to report that the Oklahoma girl plans to keep her hairstyle, albeit at a new school.

Lean in, little girl. It is never too early to battle the insidious politics of black hair.

I’m reminded of a similar incident in Seattle when an elementary-school teacher removed an African-American girl from her class because she claimed the smell of the student’s hair made her ill.

I’m not discounting the teacher’s allergies or sensitivities to smell. But can you imagine the humiliation felt by that girl, who was one of the few African Americans in that school’s gifted-education program? And we expected this student to not only embrace her educational surroundings, but excel?

In the roiling waters of racial politics, hair is a bit player. But it is one with an outsized cultural and economic impact. Black-hair care is a multibillion-dollar industry. Black women overwhelmingly outnumbered other consumers of “ethnic” hair products, which recorded a 3.2 percent sales increase in 2009, to $1.5 billion — despite a decline in sales of hair-care products overall — The Wall Street Journal reported.

Knowing our hair is a distinguishing social marker, like our skin color, we spend a lot of time and money on it.

I straighten my hair because the style looks good on me and, if I’m honest, because it helps me blend into a professional landscape where I am a minority.

But on days that are increasing in number, I’m allowing my curls and waves to push against racial typecasting. I’m not brave, just growing comfortable in my skin.

Yes, race is a social construct and not a biological fact. But rules and social practices have been built around race. For black women, our preoccupation with hair starts early and is part vanity and part self-preservation.

I recall these political currents from more than a dozen years ago when the Douglass-Truth Library in Seattle hosted a discussion about the politics of African-American hair. More recently, the topic headlined a heavily attended symposium at the University of Pennsylvania.

I know this is just life. But the Oklahoma girl reminded me that burdens that ought to be borne by adults are too often dropped squarely on shoulders too small to bear them.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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