Multicultural graduations and dreadlocks (Feb. 5)

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

My daughter graduated from college last year. Her school had two ceremonies. The 2019 commencement and the 2019 multicultural graduation. Intrigued by the latter, I checked the school’s website to get more details. The multicultural graduation was hosted by the Office for Inclusive Excellence. Their stated purpose was to celebrate the achievements of graduating seniors while celebrating the variety of cultures at the university and provide the graduates with a sense of encouragement as they embarked on their next journey in life.

I thought—that’s nice—but I wondered if an office for “inclusive excellence” was a bit much (considering the enormous cost of higher education). Then I recalled a 2017 headline from a conservative news outlet stating: Harvard University is segregating graduation ceremonies based on race. The report claimed Harvard was holding a “Blacks-only graduation.”

The report was inaccurate.

It was Harvard’s Black students that planned the additional ceremony, not the university. A spokesperson for Harvard’s African American Student Union stated the event was the first of its kind at Harvard, and pointed out other elite universities held similar events to provide a sense of solidarity among students who felt marginalized. Other reasons for the separate ceremony were to celebrate “Black excellence” and to “highlight the struggles and resilience it took to get through” because outer pressures of society made the already challenging coursework even more difficult for students of color.

Even though the conservative news outlet mischaracterized Harvard’s additional ceremony, it started a discussion (among conservatives) about whether or not the “outer pressures of society” faced by students of color during their collegiate careers were legitimate or exaggerated. (For example, campus security asked a student of color to show his ID and the student of color automatically felt he was racially profiled and harassed. Was the student of color’s complaint legitimate or exaggerated?)

But this discussion might have overlooked something significant.

What if the organizers of these additional ceremonies weren’t just celebrating overcoming difficulties on campus, but it also implied overcoming difficult experiences before college?

For example, a teenage boy in Texas has been barred from his high school graduation ceremony unless he cut his dreadlocks to comply with hair length rules. (The student used to tie up his hair with clips and rubberbands to comply with school policy, but a new rule banned male students from wearing hair adornments.) The story made national headlines. Critics stated the school’s policy was crafted by a school board in a majority-White town and the policy is rooted in racial insensitivity. Senator Cory Booker introduced federal legislation to ban discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyles commonly associated with a particular race or nationality.

I think the school can keep their ban on hair adornments for males, but make an exception for accessories that enabled students to comply with the hair length policy. That would solve the problem. But until there is a change in the school’s policy, the student with the dreadlocks has two choices. He can cut his hair and walk across the stage on graduation day with his classmates or he can keep his locks at their present length and skip his graduation ceremony. No matter the outcome, it’s a difficult situation the student has to overcome before he arrives on any college campus.

I think the organizers of additional college graduation ceremonies aren’t just celebrating students getting through college, but getting through America’s entire educational system. What the conservative discussion lacked was totality.

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