As 15-year-old Ashanti Scott knows, hair can say so much about how people see themselves.
A cheerleader at Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky, Ashanti proudly wears her hair in its natural, tightly curled state. So she was stunned just days before school began when she saw her school’s new dress code policy about “hair rules."
“I noticed that as you kept reading they added more hairstyles that were natural and mostly worn by black people,” she said. “I’ve worn those hairstyles so I definitely felt targeted, and I felt like other black students like myself were targeted, as a whole.”
She took the new policy as a personal attack, Ashanti said, “on me, and who I am and my culture, my upbringing.”
Scott and her mother, Attica Scott, soon became part of a hot national debate across the country about perceptions involving natural hair.
What offended the Scotts was the line in the new policy banning dreadlocks, twists, Afros longer than two inches and cornrows, which the policy misspelled as "cornrolls."
Attica Scott, an outspoken and newly elected Kentucky state legislator, immediately called her daughter’s school, but it was after-hours so she turned to social media, tweeting this:
Her tweet went viral within minutes and she got thousands of responses, many from parents who posted photos of their own children with hairdos that would violate Butler's policy.
“I currently have an Afro,” news anchor Renee Murphy of ABC Louisville affiliate WHAS-TV said. “I thought about coming to work several times with it out, but always decided against it: ‘Would it be too much.’ But really, what is too much?”
That question is at the center of a growing conversation about self-identity with more and more choosing to embrace their God-given hair.
“The natural hair movement is more than hair,” said Nikki Walton, author of "Better Than Good Hair" and a blogger on natural hair. “It is a lifestyle. It is learning to be comfortable in the skin that you are in.”
Walton recalls growing up feeling that straight hair was more acceptable than curly or kinky hair.
“Everything that I saw growing up – magazines, television, movies, people on the street, like people on the runway -- all you saw was straight hair, long straight hair,” she said. “Even a woman that looked like me had long flowing straight hair. And I know that whenever my hair got wet, it didn't look like that.”
Model and artist Benny Harlem and his 6-year-old daughter Jaxyn have become a social media sensation, celebrating their “crowns,” as Harlem calls them.
“This is not about photos, this is not about images,” Harlem said. “It’s about inspiring people to believe in themselves to believe in their ability to be great parents.”
And for him, it’s about teaching his daughter to be proud of where she comes from.
“Where I come from is gorgeous, where my daughter comes from is gorgeous, so we should all love where our roots come from,” he said. “Whether it’s straight, long, kinky or not … or it goes down to where her hair goes, it’s beautiful.”
It’s a message that was once thought to be revolutionary in the late-1960s during the Black Power movement, even perceived as a political statement, but certainly not anymore.
“African children… blended children, are under attack, their hair is being I guess made a mockery of,” natural hairstylist and activist Isis Brantley said. “Being told that it is unprofessional, untidy, unkempt, so this energy today is to celebrate that spiral God has given you, that bush hair, that kinky hair, the braids, the locks, the twists.”
Brantley recently hosted a rally in Dallas calling for state deregulation of braiding salons, but her argument might have been lost after she invited a controversial guest: Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who made headlines claiming she identifies as black was invited to Brantley’s Braid on Economic Liberty March and Rally.
“I just said, this is a justice issue,” Dolezal said. “I’ve taught ‘black women and hair’ as a university course … as an educator, I have a responsibility to participate in the movement.”
Dolezal, a hair braider, fully supports the natural movement, but apparently many don’t support her. Just over a dozen people turned out for the event.
Braids were never meant to cause controversy back in Louisville. William Allen, the principal at Butler Tradition High School, who is also African-American, said the policy on natural hairstyles was a big misunderstanding.
“The language for braids has always been in our dress code and that’s strictly for male students,” Allen said. “There’s never been any restrictions for our female students.”
When asked whether he thought the policy signaled out African-American students, Allen said, “Our policies are for all of our students.”
“We are a very culturally diverse school,” he continued. “I’m proud with the work that we do with all of our kids in the building. Like I said before, it gives us a chance to take a step back and look at culture vs. style and look at specific instances that we have in our dress code policy that might relate to a specific group.”
After Attica Scott’s tweet, the school quickly called a meeting and suspended the policy, but ignited more anger when students and parents weren’t given a forum to vent.
One black member of the school’s decision board, Charice Baldon-Traynham, the mother of a 15-year-old daughter at Butler, said the policy was simply about neat grooming not offending a culture.
“I know it sounds crazy, you know, standing here with African-American women with braids, I was not offended,” she said. “I just took it for what it was. It was the policy. I didn’t attach race to it. I didn’t do that.
“But just because it didn’t offend me doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the offense that others had,” she added.
She hopes future issues can be resolved before going wild on social media.
“I don’t want to live in a world where, everywhere I go, I have to see everything as black and white. I don’t want to raise my kids like that, but I will teach them to stand up for what is right,” Baldon-Traynham said.
Attica Scott said it’s not about intent, but how the policy resonated.
“And the way that it landed for me and my daughter and other students and other parents is that it was offensive, and it was discriminatory,” she said.
Butler High has since changed its dress policy to say that “hair must be well-groomed, well-kept and at a reasonable length.”
Attica and Ashanti Scott say it’s a positive outcome and, hopefully, it’s a lesson that will resonate beyond the classroom.
“I think it’s all over when it comes to Butler’s hair policy,” Ashanti said. “I’m not offended anymore.”