J. Pharoah Doss: Bad hair days and avoiding appearances

Vanessa Sefa, a Black teacher in the United Kingdom, shared a story on social media in 2021 to highlight the need for more Black teachers.

A 12-year-old Black girl entered Sefa’s class. The student was in the rain. It caused her hair to tangle and shrink. With tears in her eyes, the kid told Sefa she wasn’t going to spend the entire day at school looking a mess and expressed her desire to go home.

Going home was not an option, so the student asked Sefa to braid her hair.

When the student was nine years old, her mother died, leaving her in the care of her father. The student informed Sefa that she did not know how to properly care for her own hair. Sefa expressed empathy for the 12-year-old, stating that she understands how important hair is to one’s self-identity. Black girls are acutely aware of what their hair reveals about them.

Sefa explained that the student was approaching her adolescence, which are some of her most formative years. Sefa went on, “Even if I thought she looked fine, I wasn’t going to turn her away, pat her on the back, and tell her she looked fine when her self-esteem was temporarily fragile. It wasn’t my place, and a pep talk wasn’t what she asked for. I doubt anyone would want that response instead of actual help if their dress or makeup, for example, had been ruined by rain.”

Sefa boasted that she had the girl out in under 15 minutes, with two rushed cornrows.

Sefa hoped the narrative would inspire more Black people to pursue a teaching career since students of color require more adults in educational settings who understand sensitive cultural circumstances.

Naturally, social media praised the teacher’s holistic approach to education.

Now, let’s take the same story and replace Sefa with a male teacher. We can even assume that this Black teacher was a single father who braided his daughter’s hair. However, when the male teacher took the 15 minutes to help the student, a school administrator spotted him braiding the 12-year-old girl’s hair. After school, the administrator requested that the teacher explain his behavior.

The male teacher explained the rain, the girl’s mother, and her desire to return home. Then he tells the administrator what Sefa said: “I wasn’t going to send her away and say she looked fine. A pep talk was not what she asked for.”

The administrator would have told the male teacher to offer the motivational talk next time. This approach safeguards all parties involved and teaches students how to manage a challenging start to their day. More importantly, the administrator would have reminded the male teacher of his professional responsibilities to prevent the appearance of impropriety.

Now, contrast Sefa’s cornrow story with Marquise White’s hair-takedown controversy.

Marquise White, a Black middle school science teacher in Maryland, live-streamed his female students undoing his braids during class. It was ten minutes until the end of the day on a Friday, and the students had completed their tasks. Many participants in the live-stream discussion informed the teacher that allowing middle school girls to unbraid his hair was inappropriate and unprofessional, while others saw nothing wrong.

Rather than disregard the criticism in the chat, White chose to defend himself with a Tick Toc video that went viral.

He said that he had a hair appointment after school and needed his hair taken out beforehand. He didn’t take out his braids the night before because he was in a school promotional film that day. He needed to appear presentable. So, right before school let out, he asked a few female students to quickly take his hair down so he could be ready for his hair appointment.

Obviously, the difference between Sefa and White is that Sefa did her student’s hair to boost her confidence and get her through the day, whereas White used his female students for his own benefit.

Most of the criticism of White focused on the notion that the contact between the teacher and the female students was too intimate. This is why, in the hypothetical example, when the male teacher braided the student’s hair, the administrator reminded the teacher to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

In his Tick Toc video, he denied the notion that the contact was “too intimate.” White explained, “To me, it’s literally just hair. It does not have to be weird.”

The other distinction between Sefa and White is that Sefa posted her experience to inspire other Black people to become teachers, whereas White created the Tick Tock video to silence his critics.

Except that White’s efforts backfired. He has been reassigned out of the classroom pending the results of an investigation.

Evidently, White had not yet concluded his defense. He recently said that having my hair unbraided at work was highly unprofessional. I get that, but I am what you call an unprofessional, eclectic, unconventional teacher. Then he recited the definition of inappropriate: when something does not conform to recognized societal standards or norms. He then went on to say, “As far as this definition is concerned, I agree that this was not only unprofessional but also inappropriate. Because what I do as a teacher, as you saw in that video, goes against a lot of standards.”

One thing White did not mention. The school district’s code of conduct states that faculty should not record students’ faces or voices unless they are teaching a performing arts class or career technology.

A science teacher can be eclectic and unconventional without violating the school district’s code of conduct.





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