High school senior Asia Simo loves being a cheerleader. In her final year, she even gave up soccer – another sport she played – to focus solely on what mattered to her the most: cheering.
But with just eight games left in this year’s season, the 17-year-old was suddenly kicked off the team after three years at Captain Shreve High School in Louisiana. The reason? Her hair, her family says, which was too thick for the “half up, half down” standard the team required for a number of games. Asia accumulated demerits for having her hair out of uniform, which led to her eventual dismissal, despite not being an issue in previous years, her mother Rosalind Calloway told CNN.
Asia’s story is part of a larger trend across the US, where more and more black students say they are being penalized for their hair.
The problem lies in the policies, experts say, which don’t necessarily take into account an increasingly diverse student body, to the detriment of mostly black and biracial schoolchildren.
These rules hurt every student, even if it’s unintentional
Similar incidents have happened across the country: in Kentucky; in Louisiana; in New Jersey; in Texas. And those are just incidents from the last few years that attracted social media attention and were reported in the news.
Just this year, high school senior DeAndre Arnold was told he couldn’t walk at graduation unless he cut his dreadlocks. His case captured the attention of Gabrielle Union, Alicia Keys and even Ellen DeGeneres – who personally asked the school district to reconsider.
Most school administrators cite policies and regulations as reason – and rules are rules, after all.
But the rules are culturally insensitive, Calloway told CNN.
“(Asia’s school wasn’t) sensitive enough to the fact that everyone’s hair doesn’t automatically transform to be put in a particular style,” Calloway said. “It wasn’t a style that was accommodating for all of the girls.”
Extracurricular activities are governed by constitutions “reviewed annually by a diverse team with feedback from students,” said Caddo Parish Public Schools – the district Captain Shreve High School is a part of – in a statement to CNN. Neither the district nor the school could speak to Asia’s case specifically.
“In no such instance, is a single incident or factor cause for dismissal,” the statement read. “Instead, students are provided every opportunity to learn from their experiences and to be a part of the team unless they show a consistent pattern of failing to comply with the affirmed guidelines.”
Lily Eskelsen García is the president of the National Education Association, the largest teacher union in the country. She’s also a sixth-grade teacher in Utah, and she agrees with Calloway that the rules aren’t always inclusive.
When asked about how these rules come about, she said it comes down to a misconception about what’s “normal” and what’s not. Dreadlocks, braids, hair texture, hijabs, and so on? Those things are not “normal.”
“‘Normal’ looked like a white child’s hair, and everything else is not normal,” García said. Though it may not have been intended as an attack on racial or ethnic differences – she pointed out that in Utah, it came about as a result of multi-colored and spiked hair during the punk years in the 1980s – that’s what these rules have become.
“It really is an attack on the culture that these children bring into their schools,” she said. “You’re saying the way you and your family dress, the way you and your family … wear your hair, is wrong.”
These mindsets, García continued, have detrimental effects for every student in classrooms.
For students limited by these policies, who are told they don’t fit the “norm,” it could open them up to bullying or make them question their self-worth, García said.
After being dismissed from the team, Asia was hurt, Calloway said. For a while, she didn’t even want to cheerlead anymore.
Andrew Johnson – a high school wrestler in New Jersey who cut his dreadlocks during a match and inspired three states to pass laws on hair discrimination – was depressed after the incident, he told the ESPN’s The Undefeated.
Yet many administrators and school boards maintain their rules aren’t meant to be discriminatory.
But they’re also not made with students of color in mind, said Tehia Glass, an associate professor of educational psychology and elementary education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. She echoed García’s comments.
Most administrators, she said, are white and may not be as cognizant of how policies and practices can be biased. Rules that police hoodies, durags or bandannas, she said, clearly point at a specific group of kids, for example.
“It’s easier to say there’s no bias rather than actually having to do the work,” she said. “As opposed to, ‘Wow, let’s take a step back, let’s look, help me see where you think the bias is.’”
If teachers and authority figures don’t intentionally exhibit an appreciation for cultures different than theirs, students are going to be at a disadvantage, García said.
“They’re going to look around and not know how to deal with something that they’re not used to,” she said. “And in some cases, that could translate into someone trying to restrict wearing a hijab, or not hiring someone who wears dreadlocks because you’ve been told that’s wrong.”
With more laws and training, there may be room for hope
At the end of the tunnel, though, there may be some light.
Glass mentioned she’s seen more people become aware of race and racism who may not have paid attention before. Teachers are being far more thoughtful about how and what they teach, she said.
More districts are also providing workshops centered on cultural competency, meant to raise awareness among educators about the way race and culture impacts education, as well as build anti-racist curriculums. One- or two-day workshops rarely have an impact, Glass said, but sustained programs that help people unpack issues around race can make “a world of difference.”
There’s been movement legally, too. Three states – California, New York and New Jersey – have adopted legislation banning hair discrimination, and Virginia just followed suit this week. Similar bills are making their way through Colorado, Washington and Minnesota.
“I’m seeing more small steps,” Glass said. “That, I think, gives me some hope and some optimism.”
Still, she knows discrimination toward students of color persists. If it’s not hair, then it’s clothes, language or body types.
She’d like to see administrators actually gather feedback from students on the rules, as well as review the policies annually. These steps, she said, would help ensure the rules are more inclusive and positive, as opposed to punitive.
“You have these people in these school boards who are older, and not necessarily listening to the kids who are in the schools,” she said.
As the rules stand, Glass said, they criminalize kids simply for being themselves.
Asia, for her part, is trying to move on. Even if she can’t finish out her high school cheerleading career, she’s already focused on college – taking up tumbling classes to help prepare.
Does the situation still bother her? Sure, she said. It still hurts, but not as much as it did before.
“I know I have more things ahead of me,” she told CNN.
As the rest of the country plays catch-up, maybe – for now – that knowledge is enough.