By Sexual Correspondent Andrea Plaid
I could barely contain my rage when I saw this item:
In Seattle, Wash., a white male teacher had an 8-year-old African American girl removed from the classroom. In most cases, children are removed for behavioral and disciplinary issues, which is clearly understandable and acceptable; however, this wasn’t the case here.
The teacher removed the girl, claiming her Afro was making him sick. Naturally, the father of the child, Charles Mudede, was extremely concerned after the incident, and, as a result, the girl, who was the only black child in the advanced-placement class, has missed two weeks of school.
The incident, which occurred at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, was featured on KIRO-TV. The segment showed the hair product the girl used, Organic Root Stimulator’s Olive Oil Moisturizing Hair Lotion, as well as interviews with her mother and lawyer.
Checking out Afrobella’s Facebook page, I found the link to the original story filed by reporter Tonya Mosley, in which she interviewed the student’s mother, the lawyer taking the case, and others:
Bellen Drake still can’t believe she’s here, at a news conference with the NAACP, fighting to get her 8-year-old daughter back into honors classes - all because of hair moisturizer.
“I couldn’t comprehend it. I was trying to make sense of it and it took awhile,” said Bellen.
Bellen says late last month, the teacher pulled her daughter out of class at Thurgood Marshall Elementary and into the hallway.
“My daughter reports that she kept saying she’s afraid and it’s your hair and that she could go to another class for the rest of the day.”
Bellen says the school never contacted her about it, but instead removed the girl from her honors class and into a regular classroom.
“This is about the conduct of an adult and the ramification of that conduct by the principal,” says Vonda Sargent, the family’s attorney.
Someone who reblogged the quote from my Tumblr blog responded that the student’s father, Charles Mudede, has been writing about the situation. Come to find out the white teacher in question was a white woman, not a man as first reported:
[Just] last week, my daughter—who is 8 and happens to be the only brown person in her Accelerated Progress Program class at Thurgood Marshall Elementary—was ordered out of the classroom because her teacher did not like the smell of her hair. The teacher complained that my racially different daughter’s hair (or something—a product—in the hair) was making her sick, and then the teacher made her leave the classroom. My daughter was aware of the racial nature of this expulsion not only because she was made to sit in a classroom that had more black students in it (the implication being that this is where she really belongs, in the lower class with the other black students), but because her teacher, she informed me, owns a dog. Meaning, a dog’s hair gives the teacher less problems than my daughter’s human but curly hair. Most white people do not have to deal with shit like this. Shit that if not checked and confronted will have permanent consequences for the child.
Over the weekend, KIRO-TV ran a story on its evening newscast about the situation. The news segment showed the hair product that my daughter used, Olive Oil Moisturizing Hair Lotion, and brief interviews with her mother and lawyer. The lawyer smelled the hair product and claimed it was harmless; her mother expressed distress about the whole situation. The story wrapped up with a reporter standing outside of my daughter’s school in the Central District, explaining that he could not get a response from the teacher or the school’s principal because the school was closed for the long weekend. That was all you learned from the KIRO story.
What was significantly missing from this report is that my daughter is black American (the only black student in that teacher’s class) and the teacher who forced her out of the classroom is white American. The reason why this racial dimension was not exposed or addressed in the KIRO report is understandable: My daughter and her teacher were not interviewed. But my wife was interviewed—and she is white. So it follows that viewers would assume that her daughter is also white. But if the public had seen that the little girl has brown skin and curly hair, and her teacher has white skin and straight hair, then it would have been impossible to exclude race from this story.
If a white teacher—a person who is supposed to have a certain amount of education and knowledge of American history, and who teaches at a school named after the man who successfully argued before the court in Brown v. Board of Education for equal opportunities for racial minorities in public schools and went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice—removes a black student from a predominantly white class because of her hair, it is almost impossible not read the action as either racist or expressive of racial insensitivity, which amounts to the same thing for someone in that teacher’s position.
When we, her parents, were later informed of this incident, we also learned that once my daughter was removed from the class, the teacher felt much better. We were also told that the teacher had experienced something like a fainting spell because of our daughter’s hair. Feeling the seriousness of this situation, we decided not to send our daughter to school until the teacher had medical proof that our daughter’s hair or something in her hair was to blame for the nausea. (The last thing you want to happen to your daughter is for a teacher to faint or vomit at the mere sight of her.)
Representatives from the school district responded (original emphasis):
“The district agrees that it is not acceptable for a teacher in our district to ask a student to leave a classroom for the reasons that this child was asked to leave,” says Kevin O’Neill, senior assistant general counsel for Seattle Public Schools, the attorney who is handling the case of Mudede’s daughter.
The district’s position, in a nutshell, is that the teacher erred by kicking out the student, but race wasn’t a factor and an investigation is underway. However, O’Neill also says he doesn’t know what exactly happened or “the reasons that this child was asked to leave.” Until the investigation is complete, he says, it’s unclear what was offensive about the hair product that reportedly made the teacher sick, why the district hadn’t done anything for three days, whether an incident like this had ever occurred before, whether anyone had spoken to the teacher about the incident, whether school district rules prohibit any cosmetics, or what current or future steps are required for the investigation.
But he insists race was not a factor. Any allegations of racial insensitivity or negligence are “wholly untrue,” O’Neill says, “because, well, because the district would not tolerate employment of a teacher that has racial animosity towards a student.”
How can O’Neill—who doesn’t even know if anyone has talked to the teacher or what is occurring in the investigation—be so certain about this one aspect? “Based on preliminary information I have, it is clear that the removal of the student, as inappropriate as it was, had to do with a health issue and not a racial issue,” he says. “To the extent of the health issues, what was said to the child, the circumstances, that is a matter that is still under investigation. Based on our preliminary investigation, it isn’t a result of racial animosity, as far as I understand.”
But of course not.
Even if we give the teacher the benefit of the doubt—that her intention wasn’t to hurt the pupil with her racially insensitive comment in attempting to stave off her own allergic reactions—the fact remains is the teacher just may have done exactly that. I won’t address what others have so ably stated, namely alternatives to the teacher’s handling (such as calling the parents in for a private sit-down with her and the principal, providing medical proof that she has allergies to the product at the parents’ request, etc.) The teacher employed, according to what Mudede’s and Drake’s daughter said, a very gendered racial rhetoric, namely the Delicate White Woman Frightened by the Negress’ Physical Being. In stating to the daughter that “she’s afraid and it’s [her] hair” evokes the stereotypes that:
1) Black people (including mixed-race people who self-identity as Black—though, in this case, it’s the father who states his child is Black. No reports so far say how the child identifies herself) are a constant physical threat to whites—like all we think about is how to inflict maximum bodily damage to them.
2) that Black people (as well as other people of color and white ethnic people) smell bad, especially because they use “cultural products” that white USians aren’t used to.
3) Black people’s hair is in a dormant or active state of “fright wig,” which dovetails into the idea that Black natural hair is inherently ugly and the people possessing it as inherently unattractive, especially if the possessor is female.
4) the teacher implicated herself in an insidious stereotype about white women, namely that of a frail femininity that must be protected from any “offending coloredness”–in this case, a Black girl with some hair-care products for her naturally curly head attending an accelerated class at a school named for a staunch legal defender of civil rights.
Mudede says toward the end of his post
Getting entangled in a racial dilemma is something most black parents do not want for their children. It’s just not worth the trouble. Then again, like I said, if not checked and confronted, the incident will have permanent consequences for my child.
The NAACP agreed: they are planning to file a complaint with the US Department of Education, though I can easily seeing them argue that this may be a possible result of the Supreme Court ruling that Seattle’s attempt to integrate were illegal.
Mudede’s final thoughts: “The whole thing is a mess.”
Indeed…and an avoidable one, at that.
Thanks to Dr. Torrence Stephens for the original link, Afrobella for the great leads, and Sarah for the legal decisions!