Florida high schoolers fight for right to wear African head wraps

Students gather in the first #blackgirlswrapwednesday protest on August 31, 2016 at Gibbs High School (Photo provided by Liu Montsho Kwayera)
Students gather in the first #blackgirlswrapwednesday protest on August 31, 2016 at Gibbs High School (Photo provided by Liu Montsho Kwayera)

When a school official and a police officer stationed in a high school in Florida told an African-American student to take off her headwrap, it sparked a debate about school dress codes and cultural identity. Since then, girls at the school have been fighting the policy and other rules they deem culturally insensitive by holding what they call “Black Girls Wrap Wednesdays”.

Pinellas County School District has a strict policy of no head coverings, except if students wear them for religious purposes. It was on these grounds that school officials at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Florida asked a student to remove her headwrap, which was tied in a traditional African style, on August 25.

However, some students say that they should be allowed to wear headwraps because they reflect a cultural identity.

“People saying we can’t wear something reflects that legacy of repression”

Liu Montsho Kwayera is a 17-year-old senior at Gibbs High School and has been one of the leaders of the protest.

People see headwraps as an accessory but it is much more than that. Black girls and African girls have been wearing them for a long time. It is an important part of our culture and heritage and, for me, wearing one is empowering.

When we were stolen, our cultures, names and languages were also stolen from us [Editor’s note: Kwayera is referring to the slave trade that saw Africans like her ancestors kidnapped and brought by force to the United States]. People saying we can’t wear something reflects that legacy of repression.

“I don’t need permission for my culture”

When the incident first occurred, I felt really hopeless. It scared me that an adult could ask me to remove my headwrap. I got in touch with members of the Uhuru Movement and they helped us to organize a protest. [Editor’s note: The Uhuru Movement is an international movement founded to speak to and defend the rights of African people around the world. It is made up of different organisations working towards this aim but its international headquarters are in St. Petersburg, Florida].

We held our first Black Girls Wrap Wednesday on August 31. About sixty girls came to school wearing headwraps or dashikis. When girls wore headwraps, school administrators were sending them to the office and calling their parents. It was really stressful.

“This is about more than headwraps, it is about how black students, especially women, are treated”

After the protests began, Principal Reuben Hepburn agreed to allow the girls to wear headwraps if they had parental permission.

However, members of the Uhuru movement met with Hepburn at Gibbs High School on August 31 to advocate for further freedoms for the girls. Uhuru members reported that, after the meeting, Hepburn agreed to stop requiring parental permission. But Kwayera says the struggle isn’t over.

Sometimes, we still get hassled by school staff. I usually bring a bag of extra headwraps on Wednesdays to share with girls who might not have them. I set up shop in the bathroom during lunch to help girls put them on. Last week, an administrator realized what was going on and she got angry and tried to demoralize me.

But lately, when a school official stops us for wearing headwraps, we say “I don’t need permission for my culture” and then turn and walk to class.

Students help one another tie on the headwraps ahead of a protest. (Photo from our Observer)

Our Wednesday protests are still going strong. We have about 30 or 40 participants a week. Our guy friends have started wearing them too, and my friends at other schools in the district text me pictures to show that they are doing it too.

(screenshot provided by our Observer)

We are continuing our protests because we have four demands. First of all, we want to do away with this dress code policy all together because it is insensitive. However, it is about more than that-- it is about how black students, especially women, are treated. The girl who was involved in the first incident was told to remove her headwrap by a police officer. It was extremely intimidating, especially considering the relationship between the police and black youth. So, we want the black community to have a say in who is coming into the school, especially when it involves the police. We also want the black community to have a say in school policies. Finally, we want to open a chapter of the African National Women’s Organization on campus so that there is someone to advocate for young black women in situations like this.

It isn’t just about a single headwrap. It’s a struggle for all black girls and a struggle for the right to express our culture.

“For us, this issue is resolved”

Officials at Gibbs High School declined to speak to FRANCE 24. But Lisa Wolf, a public information officer for Pinellas County Schools, said that the issues that the protests raised had been resolved.

Our district-wide dress code bans head coverings, except when students are wearing them for religious reasons. Head coverings have been found to be distracting. Moreover, this rule also bans bandanas and sweatbands, which are popular among certain gangs.

We do allow principals to adapt the dress code for their specific school communities. In this case, the principal of Gibbs High School is allowing girls to wear headwraps as long as they have parental permission. So, for us, this issue is resolved and we are not considering changing our overall policy.

FRANCE 24 also asked Wolf about the police presence in its high schools.

There is one school resource officer stationed at each of our 17 traditional high schools. Those officers undergo specialized training to work with students in a particular capacity. That person is not just there to control. He or she is also there as a community resource and to counsel students on non-appropriate choices.

“We are constantly being told that our African identity is something we have to whitewash”

Yejide Orunmila is president of the African National Women’s Organization (ANWO), which is a women’s group under the umbrella of the Uhuru Movement. She helped the girls organize their protest. She says that they are not done fighting.

For us, this is part of a wider, global issue. We’ve seen many recent examples of authorities assaulting culture and identity. For example, girls in South Africa recently protested the fact that school officials were making them stop wearing traditional black hairstyles. This same headwrap issue just came up in Durham, North Carolina in February. We are constantly being told that our African identity is something we have to whitewash.

These policies were created to impact a particular group and we need to address that. We want to make sure that in cases where the student body is mostly non-white, there is a group on campus that can implement policies that are culturally affirming.

Girls participating in the #blackgirlswrapwednesday like Zaire Amhara took pictures of themselves. (Photo: Zaire Amhara)