Malachi Wilson, a five-year-old citizen of the Navajo Nation, was turned away from his first day at a Texas public school because his hair was too long.
School officials ordered him to cut his hair short before returning to the classroom to avoid running afoul of the school’s dress code. The child’s long hair is symbolic of his spiritual and cultural identity; however, his parents had to produce official documentation to demonstrate his official status as a registered member of the Navajo nation before he was allowed to rejoin his classmates in school.
Malachi’s mother April produced the requested documentation, and Malachi was admitted to class, solving the immediate crisis. However, complications trail in the wake of this case, which has led to the involvement of the American Indian Movement, an advocacy organization dedicated to carving out space for the renewal of traditional American Indian culture.
The controversy became a major topic of conversation on social media, with several users pointing out that schools in Seminole, Texas, are well known for appropriating and misusing images of feather-wearing Indians as school mascots. Many netizens wanted to know why long hair was a violation of the school dress code but T-shirts depicting school mascots did not violate the prohibition on “offensive images.”
Before you dismiss this case as having already resolved itself, or decide that spiritual feelings about hair are no fair basis for challenging a dress code, consider some of the implications of this situation.
A large part of the controversy revolves around what is considered “appropriate” for students. The school’s dress code prohibits “hairstyles or designs that are disruptive or distractive to the school environment,” citing a variety of hairstyles such as Mohawks, dreadlocks, or rattails. Apparently long braids on little boys are also considered “disruptive,” though one imagines a little girl with a similar hairstyle would face no opposition. Thus, there’s a gender-stereotyping component here, too.
But even more to the point, these criteria for “disruptive or distractive” hairstyles have strong cultural biases that favor students from a white, Christian background. They ignore the complexities of racial differences in hair type and texture as well as different cultural meanings attached to the length of hair: for instance, in this case, long hair on a boy is considered “disruptive” because of the assumption that girls’ hair is long but boys’ hair is short — an assumption that does not exist or make sense in many Aboriginal communities.
Requirements to cut one’s hair have a particular historical resonance from an Aboriginal perspective as well, because of the methods used across North America to try to eradicate Native culture through assimilation. Aboriginal children were brought to boarding schools (famously known as residential schools in Canada) for the express purpose of entrenching European Christian culture in the children by forbidding access to Native languages, traditions, and ceremonies. Religious institutions were often involved in these undertakings.
Generally, a young boy’s induction into these boarding school systems involved a cleric or other authority figure cutting his hair as a visible, tangible symbol of the expectation that these children would succumb to European ways and altogether cease to be part of his traditional community. With that in mind, it surely doesn’t take much imagination to see why Malachi’s first-day-of-school experience would be deeply upsetting or why his mother would find the whole situation appallingly racist and shockingly mishandled.
It also raises the problem that, were Malachi not able to produce evidence of his Navajo ancestry and group membership, his spiritual and cultural beliefs could apparently be disregarded and he could be barred from school attendance for refusing to comply with the dress code and cut his hair. To put this into perspective, keep in mind that other people do not have to provide identity cards or documentation to gain permission to express a belief or system of beliefs. Agree with his belief system or don’t; the fact that only one group is required to provide official recognition of their belief system to qualify for exemptions is, in fact, racist.
Given the vast potential for missteps on grounds of race, gender, culture, and other complex areas of human diversity, the schools of Seminole, Texas may wish to consider a less strict dress code. There’s no reason students should have to go through this hassle.