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Wake County school board will vote to embrace, protect students with natural Black hairstyles

an illustration depicting 8 natural Black hairstyles
Courtesy of Southern Coalition for Social Justice

Growing up in Thomasville, North Carolina, Monika Johnson-Hostler remembers when some classmates made her feel uncomfortable because of her hair.

Now, as vice chair of the Wake County Public School Board, she’s championing efforts by the state’s largest school district to fight Black hair discrimination.

Dreadlocks, afros, and other natural hairstyles will not just be protected against discrimination in Wake County schools, but they'll be embraced, Johnston-Hostler said.

“The anecdotes are pretty simple – parents feeling like their children had been discriminated against because of their hair, and asking them to change or move their hair, when most people don't understand our styles,” Johnston-Hostler told WUNC.

The Wake County school board’s policy committee added new language last week to the student dress code and anti-discrimination policies, impacting both students and employees.

The school board will do a first reading of the updated policy documents in a meeting on Tuesday afternoon before voting on it.

“This draws attention to a culture where students can say ‘I feel supported,’” said Johnson-Hostler. “They can feel supported that if they are experiencing discrimination, that they can actually report it, and that there are policies and protections in place to address their experiences.”

The school board’s policy committee unanimously supported the measure, all but ensuring the full board's approval, according to Johnson-Hostler.

Monika Johnson-Hostler, vice-chair of the Wake County Public School Systems board, in studio at WUNC in Durham.
Stacia Brown
Monika Johnson-Hostler, vice-chair of the Wake County Public School Systems board, in studio at WUNC in Durham.

The language changes to Wake County’s policies stem from the national CROWN Act movement, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair."

The movement promotes state-level legislation that intends to protect Black and brown people – mainly women – from discrimination based on how they style their hair.

“While we’re putting a discrimination protection, we’re also allowing students to feel seen and heard and supported through our policies,” Johnson-Hostler said.

New wording that explicitly supports the CROWN Act was added to the student dress code.

“Students are free to adopt hairstyles of their choice, whether short, long, shaved, braided, curled, twisted, knotted, or otherwise,” the updated policy reads.

“In particular, schools must permit protective, natural, or cultural hairstyles, including but not limited to such hairstyles as braids, dreadlocks, locs, twists, tight curls or cornrows, Bantu knots, afros, geles, and other culturally expressive hair ties or headwraps.”

The school board has since made edits to the proposed policy documents that will be read by the full board tomorrow, according to Julie Crain, director of strategy and policy for the school district.

According to a 2021 Dove-CROWN research study, 86% of Black teens who experience discrimination say they have experienced discrimination based on their hair by the age of 12.

In the study, all of the Black elementary school girls in majority-white schools who were surveyed reported experiencing “hair bias” and discrimination by the age of 10.

CROWN Act non-discrimination policies were passed in Durham Public Schools in 2021.

These policies were also adopted in the governments of Wake, Durham, Orange and Mecklenburg counties, as well as in Raleigh, Durham, Carrboro and Greensboro.

There hasn’t been progress in the General Assembly to make the CROWN Act state law, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

Aaron Sánchez-Guerra covers issues of race, class, and communities for WUNC.
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