The cost of ex­pres­sion and break­ing un­rea­son­able rules

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - Dahleen Glan­ton dglan­[email protected]­bune. com Twit­ter @dahleeng

It is great that 8-year-old Mar­ian Scott’s story had a happy end­ing. She is a pre­cious lit­tle girl whose glam­orous photo shoot was wor­thy of the na­tional at­ten­tion it has re­ceived since her story be­came pub­lic.

Mar­ian wasn’t al­lowed to have her class pic­ture taken at Paragon Char­ter Academy in Jack­son, Michi­gan, last month be­cause she came to school with red ex­ten­sions braided into her hair. Col­or­ful hair vi­o­lates the school’s dress code, which states that “hair­styles must be con­ser­va­tive” and that “hair color must be of nat­u­ral tones.”

It is a ridicu­lous rule that stymies cul­tural ex­pres­sion and re­presses in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Schools should be in the business of en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple to be them­selves. Some­thing as sim­ple as a unique hairstyle can build con­fi­dence, and it poses no harm to any­body else. Shame on Paragon Academy for fail­ing to see that.

Nev­er­the­less, rules are rules. And the school had ev­ery right to stop Mar­ian from par­tic­i­pat­ing in pic­ture day. She vi­o­lated writ­ten di­rec­tive, and there were con­se­quences for it. That’s how things are sup­posed to work.

At Paragon, like it or not, hair re­quire­ments are a prom­i­nent com­po­nent of the school dress code. Hair is as much a part of the school uni­form as bur­gundy polo shirts and khaki pants, and like cloth­ing, stu­dents have no choice but to ac­cept it.

The hand­book states clearly that stu­dents must be in school uni­form for fall pic­tures and any re­takes. It fur­ther states that stu­dents not in school uni­form will not be al­lowed to have their pic­tures taken.

Mar­ian’s fa­ther said the fam­ily did not re­al­ize Mar­ian’s hairstyle was against the rules. Not know­ing that a rule ex­ists is not a valid ex­cuse. Ig­no­rance can’t be used to jus­tify wear­ing red ex­ten­sions any more than say­ing you didn’t know the speed limit gets you off the hook for speed­ing.

Real life doesn’t work that way. And it shouldn’t in el­e­men­tary school ei­ther.

Ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity is a dif­fi­cult les­son for an 8-year-old. But it is a very im­por­tant one. All around these chil­dren, adults are con­stantly demon­strat­ing how to squeeze out of chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions by pre­tend­ing to be naïve about the rules. In these con­tentious po­lit­i­cal times, play­ing ig­no­rant threat­ens to be­come an ac­cept­able part of Amer­i­can cul­ture.

We can­not al­low this to hap­pen. And we can­not al­low our chil­dren to grow up think­ing that it’s OK to bend the rules and then jus­tify it by claim­ing they didn’t know they were bend­ing them.

In this case, the school’s rules were laid out suc­cinctly in a 62-page doc­u­ment, eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble on­line, along with other rules ban­ning sweat­pants, ear­rings on boys, makeup, lip­stick, fake nails, shaved heads, mo­hawks, mul­lets, body pierc­ings and tat­toos, real or fake.

School, of course, is not a democ­racy, and chil­dren don’t al­ways have a say in how laws af­fect­ing them are de­ter­mined and ad­min­is­tered. But par­ents do.

If Mar­ian’s mom and dad be­lieved that the hair rule was dis­crim­i­na­tory to­ward their African Amer­i­can daugh­ter, they should have stood up and said so. Then, they should have gone to work on forc­ing the school to change it.

In­stead Mar­ian’s par­ents took the easy way out, which is what most par­ents would have done to pro­tect their child from fur­ther dam­age. In­stead of leav­ing their daugh­ter in a school that did not ap­pre­ci­ate her cul­tural diver­sity, they chose to en­roll her some­where else.

Un­for­tu­nately, that won’t shield Mar­ian from the myr­iad dis­crim­i­na­tion she will face in the fu­ture. And it doesn’t pro­vide her with the tools she will need to stand tall and as­sert her­self some­day as an African Amer­i­can woman, strong, fear­less and will­ing to knock down bar­ri­ers that seek to paint her as less than that.

Mar­ian’s fa­ther, Doug Scott, in­stead de­cided to use the “they let white kids break the rules” ar­gu­ment. I don’t doubt for a mo­ment that there were two kids this year who took pic­tures with mo­hawks, and one had green in his hair — just as he said.

That shouldn’t be a sur­prise to any­one. Rules are of­ten bro­ken to ac­com­mo­date white chil­dren. It’s wrong and it’s un­fair, and it’s a bur­den so­ci­ety has placed on the backs of ev­ery child of color in Amer­ica.

But black peo­ple can’t worry about what white kids get away with. We have too much work on our hands try­ing to make sure that our own chil­dren, es­pe­cially when the odds are stacked so high against them, learn what they need to know in or­der to grow up and be­come pro­duc­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

For African Amer­i­can chil­dren, es­pe­cially in the school set­ting, that means fol­low­ing the rules even if the white kid sit­ting next to them doesn’t have to. And for par­ents, it means ex­plain­ing to your chil­dren early on that their skin color doesn’t af­ford them the lux­ury of pick­ing and choos­ing which rules to fol­low, whether it’s how to re­act when stopped by the po­lice or se­lect­ing which parts of the dress code to fol­low.

The con­se­quences are more se­vere, and the last­ing im­pact of­ten is more dam­ag­ing. It would be won­der­ful to live in a so­ci­ety where Mar­ian never had to know the truth, if she could just be a kid like ev­ery other kid.

Mar­ian was lucky that a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher from Naperville heard about her and de­cided to have her pose, red ex­ten­sions and all, for stun­ning pic­tures that went vi­ral on the in­ter­net. For her, this hor­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence had a sto­ry­book end­ing. But that hor­ri­ble rule about col­ored hair is still on the books.

JER­MAINE HOR­TON PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

Mar­ian Scott, 8, of Michi­gan, was told her col­ored hair ex­ten­sions vi­o­lated the school dress code.

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