Should HBCU Students Be Able to Wear Bonnets on School Grounds?

Getty / Maskot

Image Source: Getty/Maskot

The conversations around appropriate states of dress in the Black community are hitting again like clockwork. While the topic can feel reductive, there are times when real-world examples of stringent dress codes make you want to scratch your head.

So goes the case of X, formerly known as Twitter, user @_InMayapinion, who lamented the fact that her school, Wiley College, has allegedly prohibited students from wearing wig bands to class. “A dress code at a college is already a lot but okay,” she tweeted. “But no shorts to class? NO WIG BANDS?!? The targeting of the young Black women on campus at my HBCU is getting out of hand.”

While dress codes often serve as a way for schools to have a uniform look when in the classroom, there is something that feels uncomfortable about forbidding college students who live on campus at an HBCU to change their appearance for the sake of uniformity, especially when you consider the beauty and hair practices of Black women.

Wiley College’s dress code policy states that students may not “wear baseball caps, stocking caps, skullcaps, sun-visors, do-rags . . . in public buildings except in the privacy of the student’s living quarters.” The same code also goes on to say that “pajamas, hair rollers, and/or bedroom slippers shall be worn only in the residence halls and not be worn in public or in common areas of the College.” In the thread under the aforementioned tweet, the same student shares a picture of a sign that says students will not be served food in the cafeteria if they show up in bonnets or durags.

When it comes to hair in the Black community, styling is a multilayered process that can sometimes take hours. Not only can you use rollers to keep curls in place, but you may also need products like stocking caps or hair scarves to keep your hair protected from the elements and tangle-free if you lay down or rest your head on something. Life doesn’t stop just because you start living on a college campus, and it would be understandable if it was a bit confusing for Black students at a historically Black college to hear that their beauty practices have to be regulated at the consequence of facing disciplinary action.

“As like everything else, I believe in time and place,” beauty expert and Howard University alum Blake Newby tells POPSUGAR. “I also, however, am more than familiar with the cultural nuances that come with Black hair.” Though her alma mater is well-known for its impeccably dressed student population, that sentiment does carry over to their beauty practices. “There was always an emphasis on proper grooming,” she says. “We’d all spend whatever we had on a nail or eyebrow appointment, or a trip to the beauty supply store.” Yet, even Newby acknowledges that some of these codes can overstep. “I’d be lying if I said I never ran out anywhere quickly in a bonnet or with my hair in rollers in an effort to preserve my style for a later time,” she says. “If you want to have certain rules for the classroom, totally fine. But the cafeteria, I have to disagree.”

Still, there are others who believe that the codes of conduct do have some merit. Stixx Matthews, beauty editor at Hypebae, recalled not being able to wear lounge clothing – including his durag – in his school’s common areas during his time as a student at Paine College in Georgia. But this experience is one that he cherishes. “At an HBCU, it’s not that we’re being policed, but I’ve always felt these standards were enforced out of an abundance of caution for the conversations we were going to face in the ‘real world,'” he tells POPSUGAR. “As antiquated as many of these ‘rules’ are, and as much as they subscribe to respectability politics, these values and ethics have been around since the late 1800s. The learned beauty standards that we pick up from HBCUs later set us apart in how we show up in our professional and personal lives – it’s more than a standard; it’s a lifestyle.”

At the end of the day, it is understandable that schools may have a code of dress when it comes to how students present themselves in the classroom. It is a practice that many companies undertake, so it is fair to say that it can prepare them for the same possibility in the workforce. However, denying someone who is paying to attend an institution food because of a bonnet or wig band is unacceptable. No, they are not at home, but if a school is supposed to be where someone lives and learns, where are their places of rest and ease? Are they supposed to keep up the performance of being perfectly kept 24/7?

This question is a complicated one that deserves to be explored, but if nothing else, these young Black students deserve the benefit of the doubt. If someone has made it as far in their educational journey to where they are an undergrad, chances are they know that there is a time and place for everything when they get to the “real world.” Give them room to continue figuring out who they are under the supervision of people who are supposed to protect them, instead of harshly regulating how they protect their hair that day. The world is critical enough.

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