High School seniors Delanie Seals and Is’Abella “Izzy” Miller and junior Avaunt Brown, have been protesting Oklahoma’s Byng School District’s anti-African headwrap dress code policy since their sophomore year.
Byng, Oklahoma is a town of about 1,500 residents, of which less than two percent of the population are African (black), 75 percent are white, 16 percent are Native, and 6 percent are of other nationalities.
This is reflected in the political leadership of the town and in the make-up of Byng’s five-member, white, Board of Education.
In February 2018, the students began wearing African-styled headwraps to express themselves culturally.
On the first occasion, Delanie was targeted by Principal Michael Tamaz, who called her into his office to ask her, “What is that thing on your head?”
After educating him on its cultural significance, Delanie was instructed to “take it off because it’s basically a hat.”
She refused and was cautioned that she would only be allowed to wear the headwrap for the rest of the day. Instead, she and Izzy wore their headwraps for the rest of the school year.
In August 2018, at the start of the new school year, Delanie and Izzy’s junior year, they both decided to continue wearing their African-styled headwraps.
The new school principal, Trent Miller, followed his predecessor in singling out the girls for their choice to wear their headwraps.
He secured legal counsel to protect the interest of the school against the growing pressure the girls were putting on him to explain the subjective anti-African nature of the District’s dress code policies.
After getting nowhere with the principal, the girls requested to speak to the Board of Education and superintendent. However, their requests were repeatedly ignored.
In August 2019, the start of the new school year, Delanie and Izzy’s senior year, the girls continued to wear headwraps.
Once again, Delanie was called into the principal’s office, but this time she was threatened with In School Detention (ISD) if she didn’t comply.
Intimidated, Delanie chose to adjust her headwrap into a headband.
Just a few days later, Delanie and Izzy, under threat of ISD, decided that they would wear their headwraps anyway.
True to form, they were stopped by principal, Trent Miller, who told them to take their headwraps off, to which Delanie answered, “We are going to keep them on because it’s a part of who we are and where we come from.”
As a result, Delanie and Izzy were given ISD and put into a room where they were grouped with students who were considered delinquent because they, “wrote on the walls and started fights with people,” according to Delanie.
A few days later, on August 27, Delanie, Izzy and Avaunt, were called in to meet with superintendent, Todd Crabtree; vice superintendent, Kevin Wilson; and board member, Staci Capps.
The administrators could not justify why African cultural wear was banned and other cultural attire like Native cultural wear, in particular, was allowed.
Superintendent, Todd Crabtree, went as far as mentioning safety concerns and stating that, “clothing have gotten people killed.”
Needless to say, nothing was accomplished in the meeting, leading the students to request another meeting with the superintendent.
This did not sit well with the students who feel that all cultural expressions should be allowed, if one is allowed, and believe, “that Byng should be a place where diversity is valued and not shunned; and that fighting for headwraps is a stepping stone for our fight for ALL ethnic groups/cultures to be represented equally.”
ANWO National Movement Against Anti-African Dress Code Policies
Hitting a brick wall with school administrators, Izzy and Delanie reached out to the African National Women’s Organization (ANWO) whose student organizers led a dynamic viral campaign with the 2016 struggle against Pinellas County Gibbs High School’s anti-African dress code policy, called #BlackGirlsWrapWednesday.
The campaign was picked up by national and international news outlets such as Mic, France24 and The Observers.
African women all over the U.S. united with the struggle and wore headwraps every Wednesday and posted to social media, in solidarity.
This campaign finally gave African students a voice and allowed them to celebrate themselves in a way that school dress codes nationwide restrict.
The goal then, as it is now, is to change the dress code policy, county-wide.
Similar to Gibbs High School, the administrators at Byng cited safety concerns as one of the reasons they wouldn’t consider changing school policy.
The students are now taking this struggle to the community, instead of keeping it contained with school administrators.
School Dress Codes are rooted in capitalist exploitation and colonial oppression
The students believe that, “the dress code is historically racist,” and that, “schools like Byng have to stop holding onto prejudiced dress codes that put a stint on cultural expression.”
School districts around the country continue to use, “safety concerns when it comes to clothing items like the headwrap, clinging to the fearful mindset people had back then and even now of ethnic minorities,” according to Delanie.
She believes that the use of the term “safety concerns” by school districts, “is an excuse for continuing cultural assimilation and repression of our culture, masked as a dress code.”
The reality is that this land was colonized by European settlers who used African slave labor to amass wealth, laying the foundation of capitalist development.
This bolstered U.S. colonial expansion, which led to the near extinction of indigenous groups.
During the U.S. government’s ongoing colonial assault against the indigenous populations, they kidnapped indigenous children from their communities and put them in Native schools as a way to assimilate them into white colonial culture.
At the turn of the 20th century, when education was becoming public in the U.S., these same methods of white washing were used to wage a serious assualt against the cultural identity of all non-white groups.
Schools created under colonialism serve the interest of the white ruling class colonizers.
It is a propaganda system that upholds white power and serves to categorize colonized peoples as “other,” excluding us from normal cultural and historical representation.
Delanie is clear that, “this issue, has a deeper and more sinister reasoning than the school district, wants to admit” and doesn’t believe that it is an “exaggeration, but instead it is a scary and sad reality.”
All over the U.S., African students are criminalized in schools for hair and clothing choices that celebrate and validate who they are culturally.
As more and more young Africans embrace their cultural identity, they are seeking ways to display their pride, but anti-African sentiment, disguised as policy, often make cultural expression a punishable offense.
Oklahoma created by colonial violence
Despite the state’s Cherokee/Choctaw name and the Osage Nation/Choctaw state flag, Oklahoma is mostly inhabited by white settlers who live on the pedestal of violence and oppression waged against the indigenous groups that populated the area.
Let’s also not forget, that the first internal aerial bombing on U.S. soil was in 1921, against Greenwood, a thriving black town in Tulsa, Oklahoma; also affectionately referred to as Little Africa and Black Wall Street, which is just an hour and a half drive from Byng.
The Tulsa Massacre, was initiated when white settlers, in an economically challenged neighboring town, enlisted the help of the U.S. National Guard to destroy Greenwood; resulting in the massacre of 300 African people.
So when Todd Crabtree, superintendent of Byng School District, states that “clothing have gotten people killed,” inferring that African culture is dangerous; it is important to remind him that in Oklahoma, violence has historically been carried out by white settlers.
Byng is everywhere
The struggle led by these brave students at Byng High School is a struggle that many African children are engaged in internationally, even on the African continent.
Around the time that ANWO was organizing against the dress code policy in Pinellas County, Florida, African students attending a South African prep school were protesting the school’s policy that criminalize their African hair, in Africa.
South Africa, just like the U.S., is a settler colony.
Since our struggle in 2016 there have been many more examples of how dress codes target and criminalize African students more than any other group.
It is time that African students, parents, educators and community members end these assaults by demanding everywhere an end to the criminalization of Africa and African people.
ANWO will be assisting students and the community in Byng to build a movement that we believe will change the political landscape for African students in Byng and possibly across the country.
The student’s multi-year resistance is testimony to the strength of African women and girls.
They are committed to seeing this through and pledge to “change this policy before graduation, so that other black students don’t have to go through this same thing.”
Let’s help them accomplish this mission. To find out how you can support contact ANWO at firstname.lastname@example.org or (240) 326-3959.