Skip to main content

A tale of two black hairstyles

By Michaela Angela Davis, Special to CNN
September 16, 2013 -- Updated 1732 GMT (0132 HKT)
Dante de Blasio and Tiana Parker
Dante de Blasio and Tiana Parker
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michaela Davis: Two very different children found their hair in the spotlight this past week
  • Davis: While Dante de Blasio's afro won hearts, Tiana Parker's dreadlocks got criticized
  • She says the "otherness" of black hair is a reminder that there is still bias to overcome
  • Davis: Let's hope one day black hairstyles won't trigger powerful emotions or suspicions

Editor's note: Michaela Angela Davis, a writer and activist, was the executive fashion, beauty and culture editor at Essence, editor in chief of Honey magazine and fashion director for Vibe magazine.

(CNN) -- Hair in the black community is like a religion, resplendent with ritual, devotion, mythology, metaphor, plenty of pomp and circumstance.

Black hair arguably is one of the quickest indicators of ethnicity, ethos and sometimes, politics. This past week, two very different children found their very different "ethnic" hairstyles in the spotlight on two very different political stages.

Dante de Blasio, the son of New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, is a typical nerdy, smart, shy 16-year-old Brooklyn boy. He has delighted New Yorkers, late-night satirists and America with his charm and awesome afro.

Michaela Angela Davis
Michaela Angela Davis

When the Big Apple's primary election was held, it garnered national attention at first largely because of the high-profile and high-drama candidate Anthony Weiner. Yet, when it came to the TV campaign ads, liberal Bill de Blasio stole the show.

But it's mostly not because of his anti-Bloomberg or I'm-for-the-small-man messages (although that matters). It was because of his son Dante, who starred in a brilliant 30-second straight no chaser ad. Displaying a fluffy 'fro, he became a symbol for progress, acceptance, diversity and freedom.

Dante and his gravity-defying, nonconformist hairstyle helped signal to New Yorkers that his father, Bill de Blasio, understands equality, empathizes with the victims of systemic bigotry and is more than qualified to lead the most diverse metropolis in America. De Blasio finished first in the primary, though it is not clear whether he will have to face a runoff against Bill Thompson for the Democratic nomination.

Going natural in corporate America

To some black voters, Dante's afro reflected that this boy and by association his father, respected the civil rights struggle, since the afro is considered an icon for black pride and progress. In other words -- you can trust de Blasio to be sensitive to issues of race that affect New York City, most notably the controversial stop-and-frisk policy. And to white voters and others, Dante's afro was just cool.

But while Dante's afro is being celebrated, in a different part of America last week a little girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was reprimanded because her hairstyle violated the policy of her charter school.

Tiana Parker, a pretty, sweet, shy 7-year-old Midwest girl with a big bow over her dreadlocks was criticized because at the Deborah Brown Community School where she is a student, "hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, Mohawks and other faddish styles" were not permitted.

When the tearful Tiana hit the TV news cycle, many people were heartbroken watching her. According to news reports, she was told that her perfectly neat little locks "didn't look presentable."

This is certainly not the first time that dreadlocks have been banned from schools but it was one of the most emotional instances.

So much so that more than 20,000 people signed a petition demanding that Deborah Brown Community School publicly apologizes to Tiana Parker and her family. Parker's parents pulled her out of the charter school and placed her in a new school where hopefully she can lead a hair hassle-free childhood. (Deborah Brown Community School has since apologized and removed the language about African-American hairstyles from its dress code.)

Why focus on Gabby Douglas' hair?

Tiana's experience, for many, is a symbol that ignorance and bias still pervades American life. The fact that in her natural state, her hair was viewed as rebellious, signals that there is a lot of misperception that we must correct. One way to fix this is for mainstream media to champion more diverse images of black beauty.

Black hair is a repository for America's painful past and promising future. The endless style possibilities of black hair represent America's creative genius, yet its "otherness" is a constant reminder of unresolved inequalities and subtle prejudices.

Let's hope that one day, hairstyles from the black community will no longer trigger powerful emotions or suspicions.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michaela Angela Davis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT