A School is Always Teaching: What Deborah Brown Community School Taught One Little Black Girl


If you haven’t seen it yet, here is the news story about 7-year-old Tiana Parker. She’s a former student at Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Deborah Brown Community School, whose father ultimately pulled her out after being repeatedly told by the school to change his daughter’s hairstyle. Tiana’s dreadlocked hair was in violation of the school’s dress code which clearly states, “Hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” (see page 13).

That’s the basic story, but this goes so much deeper.

This isn’t a simply a question of where Tiana Parker should go to school; thankfully she’s got the privilege of having an involved parent who has taken her out of DBCS. This debacle actually invokes larger questions of what we’re teaching children about their ethnicity and how to combat respectability politics.

A school is constantly teaching students. From what is taught in the curriculum, to what’s not taught in the curriculum, to the behaviors it punishes or promotes, a school is a really complex learning system that goes infinitely beyond what’s typed in the textbooks it uses. Hot Comb For Tiana Parker, Deborah Brown Community School has taught her that her hair, styled in its natural state, is “faddish”. “Unaccepable”. One ugly irony – and what also ends up being taught at DBCS – is that children whose hair is hot ironed and chemically straightened to look drastically different from its natural state are “normal” and “acceptable”. Even with the possible health issues notwithstanding, why should a school teach a child that a genetic part of their ethnicity – nappy hair – is “unacceptable”? Especially a publicly-funded school like Deborah Brown? And as a social justice advocate, I ask why we should allow such sentiment to exist unchecked in the first place?

I don’t know what kind of education Deborah Brown Community School provides otherwise, but in this case, they’ve taught Tiana Parker a horrendous and despicable lesson about her Blackness.

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. He is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington. Even though he’s bald, Maurice loves the texture of his nappy hair… unfortunately it’s only on his face now.

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry ©2013

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