The function of a school’s student handbook is to guide both parent and student through the school’s policies and procedures. Common material found in student handbooks include the school’s mission, values, academic expectations, and dress code, just to name a few. The goal is to present this information in a clear and detailed fashion so that it can be executed in an objective manner. Unfortunately, handbook policies may unintentionally privilege one culture over another.
One area of the student handbook that can raise constituent concerns and prove challenging for leadership to enforce is the school’s appearance code. The appearance code often rests on the philosophical understanding that dress is an expression of both personality and attitude. By exhibiting personal responsibility in this area, students show respect for themselves and their school community by being appropriately dressed. Maintaining an atmosphere that expects a student’s quality of appearance can positively impact school climate.
A school’s appearance standards can be used to demonstrate how students are developing their ability to make wise choices. Within this context, students are taught that extremes are to be avoided and that all dress should exhibit modesty. It is important to note that in the establishment of specific appearance standards, students can be taught discipline by abiding to a standard of dress and at the same time dressing appropriately for each occasion. While students are expected to follow the appearance standards every day, parents are encouraged to assist in making sure their child(ren) are properly dressed prior to arriving at school.
Whereas a school’s appearance code can somewhat monitor and regulate the torso, legs, and sometimes shoes of students, it can prove more difficult to articulate expectations for the hair of its students, primarily the African American students. Vague language is often used to describe the type of care and style allowed for students’ hair. Words such as “traditional,” “conservative,” and “clean cut” are used to evoke a visual of how hair should be presented (while words such as “extreme” or “unkempt” are used to describe hair that is not up to code). The problem with this policy language is twofold.
First, the vague language makes monitoring subjective at best. What does “clean cut” actually mean? Clean-cut can refer to an individual’s grooming habits–a presentation that is clean, neat, and trim. If this is the expectation, why do some schools deny dreadlocks, cornrows, and faux hawks? Are these hairstyles unable to be clean, neat, and trimmed? I don’t think that anyone would make this claim; however, our handbooks may specifically list these styles as unacceptable. If you type “professional hairstyles for men” into Google then click images, what visuals do you see? Is this the picture we have in our heads when we say “clean-cut”? If you repeat these steps using the phrase “unprofessional hairstyles,” what images are presented? Do these visuals match our handbook account of what is unacceptable?
When we use vague, subjective policy language, we put school leaders in a position to interpret these words and then make judgments. Moreover, these judgments often penalize African American students at disproportional rates and put them in positions to deny hairstyles that are normative for them and connect deeply to their culture.
The second problem with appearance codes about hair is that students of color, mainly African Americans, are forced to alter and/or adjust their hair to fit the language and style of the school’s white population. These hair codes can send a message that black hair is inherently inferior, unprofessional, and limiting while white hair is the desired norm. School leaders need to have frank conversations about why students hair needs to be regulated in the handbook. We understand that dress codes are supposed to inspire uniformity. But for black students, uniformity too often translates to conformity, to whiteness.
Our schools must welcome the diversity that our students bring to the table. This diversity must be seen as a strength as well as a manifestation of how God made us each distinct and special. Our schools must also remember that students learn values from the policies we articulate and execute, just as much as they do from our classroom instruction. As you continually update your school handbook, ensure that your policies convey the biblical value of inclusion.
This article is part of a series on diversity in the Christian school.