Thursday, January 24, 2013

Race and Stereotypes: A Diplomatic Letter

Experiencing the harsh realities of stereotypes, and issues related to race and culture brings certain feelings to the forefront.  I've always been of the mind that if there is going to be systemic change, there needs to be on-going, real conversation, and we need to do it now.  Sometimes it's the observer who calls someone out, and by doing so, builds strength in continuing this long conversation.  Emma, whose been a part of the long conversation about stereotypes and race, witnessed an incident and chose to respond to it by first asking questions and gathering information. She took one step further and addressed an issue that did not sit well with her.  I'm proud of her for doing the right thing, and for modeling action in a diplomatic, thoughtful way.  Read it right here by my audacious 17-year-old . . .

Dear Ms. Domini,

My name is Emma Werntz, a senior, and also the girlfriend of Trenor Seals.  We have never spoken before, though one of your actions came to my attention on December 4th during the passing period after late start.  I don’t mean to alarm you, I would just like to point out a cultural difference that is both overlooked by the Code of Conduct and your actions.

Trenor came to school with a black head wrap.  The ‘Dress Code’ on page 31 of our student handbook states, “No hats or head coverings are to be worn or visibly carried upon entering the building until the end of the school day.”  Let me begin with saying that this part of the Student Procedures section, I believe, is poorly written in regards to race and religion.  I understand that this is out of your control and I will address this problem with the administration separately.  

However, there is a clear difference between a head wrap: (imagine the material of a pair of black tights):

a beanie: (knitted and considered a hat)

and a cap: (clearly a hat)

A hair wrap is what many African Americans wear during the transition period of their hairstyle, what they use to protect hair that is being conditioned for a length of time, or they may simply just not want to put the effort into their hair that morning.  (A hair wrap is to an African American as a ponytail or messy bun is to a white person.)  In Trenor’s case, he is in a hairstyle transition.  Normally, as you are probably aware, he has cornrows or long braids that have the look of dreadlocks (or dreads.)  These styles require much attention and time (hours).  At this point in time, Trenor had to take out his cornrows because they had overgrown and were beginning to fall out of order.  With no one to immediately do his hair, he chose to use a hair wrap for the day to protect his hair and keep it out of his face.  

I understand that you are enforcing the ‘Dress Code,’ and you have a right being in the position of a Dean or any other adult figure.  However, when you asked Trenor to remove his “hat,” it was culturally insensitive because a hair wrap is more than just a “head covering,” it’s a tool.  In no way was his face covered, but clearly visible and out of shadow.  Trenor also explained to me how he passed Mr. Brown and Mr. Antonio in the hallway, and neither said anything.  Being that they are African American, they understand the use of a hair wrap.  

On page 31 of the ‘Dress Code’ it also indicates that, “Prior permission to wear head covering may be granted by a Dean.”  Although Trenor did not have “prior permission,” there was also inconsistency between your enforcement and Mr. Brown’s.  I believe that the wording of this code puts many students in the position of accusation when it comes to race and religion, however it also relies on the Deans to be fully knowledgeable of culture.    

Like you, I am also a white female, and I am learning about cultural differences everyday.  Trenor’s hair wrap is no different to a student who practices the Islamic faith and wears a hijab, or a student who practices the Jewish faith and wears a kippah, a Buddhist who wears a kasaya, or a white person who wears their hair in a bun.  

Thank you for your time,
Emma Werntz
Counselor: Gust Athanas

Emma is a high school senior and a lover of all things good and kind.  She enjoys dancing, nature, and family.  Her adventurous spirit shows up in her life list, where it’s not just about the things she’s crossed off, but the things she adds to it.  Of all the important things, she's a wonderful big sister to Misa and John-Pio. 

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