Arianna DeJesus went to school one day in first grade with braids in her hair after sitting for six hours as her mother braided her hair and put beads in to hold it in place. By the end of the day, DeJesus’ teacher had cut her braids off and put them in a bag to send home with a note saying that the beads had presented a safety concern.
In her freshman and sophomore years of high school, her fellow students regularly touched her hair without her consent, and made comments about how it was “nappy” and “ghetto,” which DeJesus, who is Black, interpreted as racist.
She got in trouble for yelling at a peer who had taken a lock of her hair between his fingers and rubbed it, making it frizzier, and was given detention for being “rude” to students whom she told to stop touching her hair.
DeJesus is now a senior at Bangor High School, and said she has regularly heard racist and ignorant remarks from students and teachers about her hair throughout her time in Bangor schools and that teachers, a guidance counselor and a principal failed to act when she complained multiple times.
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While the Bangor School Department has resolved to address racism in its classrooms, DeJesus said discrimination against Black students and students of color persists, and that white students have not gotten in trouble for saying racist remarks about their hair or touching it without consent.
The Bangor School Department’s dress code does not have any rules around how students wear their hair and its non-discrimination and affirmative action policy prohibits discrimination based on “identities and attributes, race, color, national origin, and genetic information,” said district spokesperson Ray Phinney.
The department amended both policies after June 2020, Phinney said, when a Bangor Daily News investigation that month revealed that administrators and teachers failed to follow anti-discrimination policies and that Black students heard racist comments from classmates who did not face punishment.
The school department hired an affirmative action and Title IX coordinator, Dana Carver-Bialer, in November 2020 and required diversity, equity and inclusion training for all staff, from custodians to principals, Phinney said.
At the state level, Maine is one of several states that is moving to recognize hair discrimination as a form of prejudice. A bill pending in the state Legislature that would amend the Maine Human Rights Act to ban employment and educational discrimination on the basis of hair texture and style, LD 598, is one vote away from heading to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk.
Hair discrimination has gained recognition as a form of racism that persists in public spaces like workplaces, schools and the military. Data show Black students are disciplined at higher rates than their white peers, including for subjective violations of rules like dress codes, that include rules against natural hair styles like afros, dreadlocks, braids and cornrows. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this month that would ban discrimination against hair textures and styles in federal housing, programs and employment. Illinois and Massachusetts passed similar legislation.
“Black people have for centuries been told that our natural hair is too ‘difficult, ‘unmanageable, or ‘unprofessional’ due to white supremacist standards of beauty and acceptability,” said Kholiswa Mendes Pepani, a Portland resident who testified in favor of LD 598.
DeJesus also submitted a statement in favor of the bill, which Rep. Laura Supica, D-Bangor, read on the floor of the Maine House.
The U.S. Army adopted new grooming standards last year that allow service members to retain their natural hair texture and styles, four years after removing a ban on dreadlocks for women that critics said unfairly targeted Black soldiers.
DeJesus said her experience with classmates making comments about her hair and touching it improved during the pandemic because schools went remote.
“It’s just been a lot,” she said.
Superintendent James Tager started last July promising to address racism in Bangor schools.
“I know there’s change on the outside but I haven’t seen it yet,” DeJesus said. “I haven’t met with the new superintendent or seen new policies.”
New hires like Carver-Bialer and staff training on diversity, equity and inclusion “allow us to welcome these discussions with students and propel us forward in our commitment to a culture of inclusion and belonging,” Tager said.
The school department’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee will present findings from its four subcommittees about topics like its mentoring program, curriculum audit and diversity recruiting and retention efforts to the Bangor School Committee and Tager at a meeting next month, Phinney said.
DeJesus said she’s learned to let some comments go without responding, and is looking forward to graduating from Bangor High, adding that she has made some good memories during her time there.
Hiring more Black teachers would help students like her in the future, along with having a racial equity officer in every school to listen to students, DeJesus said.
“Having someone who knows what you’re feeling, and knows that [racist comments] aren’t just words, would be good,” she said.