Bullying has become a national crisis. Reports of children attempting suicide due to bullying continue unabated. But during the past year, hair-bullying in particular, has garnered national attention. In the hair-bullying cases, the bullies are not children, they are educators.
For example, seven-year-old Tiana Parker wears her hair in dreadlocks similar to those worn by acclaimed authors Toni Morrison and Anne Lamott. Locking is an age-old styling method employed by people with afro-textured hair. This natural hairstyle allows Tiana Parker to honor her God given hair and avoid harmful chemical relaxers, which may result in burns, hair loss, uterine fibroids and early-puberty. Instead of school administrators applauding Tiana Parker's ability to resist media pressures to straighten her hair, the administrators of her Oklahoma Charter School threatened to expel her for violating the school's dress code. The code forbade afro-textured hairstyles like dreadlocks and afro-puffs.
Then just months after the Tiana Parker incident, in November of 2013, 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke faced similar bullying by her Florida school for wearing her natural afro-textured hair loose. Like Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony before her, Vanessa VanDyke spoke up about the intolerance and injustice she faced. She was being teased for having puffy hair. Instead of school administrators speaking to the children who teased her about respect for others and cultural inclusion, the officials turned into bullies themselves. They told Vanessa Van Dyke that her afro-like hairstyle was a "distraction" and threatened to expel her.
Hair-bullying does not only impact girls of African descent who are ironically regarded as rebels for wearing natural afro-textured hair styles. Last month, Timberlake Christian School in Virginia sent the grandparents of Sunnie Kahle, an eight-year-old girl, a letter that effectively stated that the school did not approve of her short hair and "tomboy" appearance and demeanor. The letter stated that Sunnie Kahle's could be denied enrollment if she did not start dressing and behaving more feminine. Sunnie collects hunting knives, autographed baseballs and coins. Like, Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart before her, she challenges traditional expectations of which activities girls should love.
An equally heart-wrenching hair-bullying incident occurred last week. A nine-year-old Colorado girl named Kamryn Renfro bravely decided to shave off all of her hair as a symbolic gesture of support for her friend who had lost her hair due to stage four cancer. Kamryn Renfro's compassion reminds me of humanitarians such as Mother Teresa and Mother Hale. But instead of praising Kamryn Renfro for her empathy, school administrators suspended her for violating the school dress code which forbids shaved heads. The school cited the need for uniformity as a major reason for the dress code policy.
The fact that so many schools, both public and private and both secular and religious, are pursuing a culture of blind uniformity, as revealed in their reactions to "different" hair, is disturbing.
Post-Industrial revolution expert Seth Godin has explained that an education that stressed uniformity was deemed necessary to produce homogenized, obedient and satisfied factory workers. Schools produced interchangeable graduates who simply did as they were told on the assembly line. But today, due to globalization, factory jobs are leaving the United States in record numbers. Moreover, computer software and other forms of automation are replacing non-factory jobs that were once performed by professional lawyers and accountants. Additionally, machinery and technology have made products so inexpensive to produce that consumers are overwhelmed by choices. Companies need creative people to design highly differentiated products that stand out from the pack. For these reasons, best-selling author Daniel Pink, believes that right-brained, innovative and compassionate independent thinkers (like Tiana Parker, Vanessa Van Dyke, Sunnie Kahle and Kamryn Renfro) will increasingly rule the economy.
But such thinkers are being bullied by their school administrators. Their experiences read like cautionary tales. These young girls bear striking similarities to the main character of my children's book about hair-bullying, Sunne Gift: How Sunne Overcame Bullying to Reclaim God's Gift. Like the fictional character Sunne who has the ability to make the sun rise and set, all of these girls are incredibly gifted. They are A-students with various musical and athletic talents. Like Sunne, they experienced the emotional-devastation of hair-bullying. But in the book, Sunne's bullies eventually realize that by bullying Sunne they have harmed themselves and the planet. The fictional bullies band together to affirm Sunne and save the world. Time will tell whether educators in the United States will also see the errors of their ways, affirm students who are different and begin to prepare the next generation of innovators so that our nation can succeed. However, if they continue to punish difference and or creativity with respect to hair and other matters, our nation will certainly suffer as a result.