Smoky Hill High School ‘black hair-care day’ draws questions, criticism, praise

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A screen shot from the website of Smoky Hill High School in Aurora. Students celebrated Black History Month by focusing on these events. Some black parents said they questioned why these events were connected to black history curricula. SENTINEL COLORADO

AURORA | Some Smoky Hill High School parents say they were confused and angered after the school encouraged students to wear scarves, bonnets, durags and afros as part of Black History Month, while a local black activist said the event was respectful.

The south Aurora high school celebrated Black History Month last week through a series of themed events, including a “Black Hair-care Day” theme  Feb. 26.

“Show us how you care for our amazing hair. Scarves, bonnets and durags welcome!” the school said on its website, above silhouetted images of picks and people wearing afros and braids.

The theme didn’t sit well with two separate Smoky Hill parents. They said they complained to school leadership that the theme had nothing to do with Black History and was offensive. A local black activist group official said he, too, had questions when he heard about the event, but that he eventually saw it as a supportive project.

“I was immediately boiling inside, because it was offensive,” said Donye Jackson, who is black, recalling when her son told her of the theme. Jackson’s son is a freshman at Smoky Hill. “I just don’t know how black hair care has anything to do with black history,” she said.

Jackson’s son, Xavier Tovar-Peters, said a few people in each of his classes participated in the black hair-themed day, wearing durags and afros.

He said he personally thought the theme was “racist” but didn’t encounter other students who thought so.

Cherry Creek School District spokesperson Abbe Smith responded to Sentinel inquiries on behalf of Smoky Hill administrators.

She said the theme idea originated with students on the school Diversity Leadership Team who “proposed the day as a way to celebrate Black History Month and educate people about the history of head wraps and durags in black culture.”

The issue of hair and hair styles of blacks has made its way into general consciousness lately, and even the Colorado Legislature this year. There a local state lawmaker is sponsoring a bill addressing black hair styles and the workplace.

Smith said Smoky Hill students watched the Oscar-winning short-film “Hair Love,” about a black father tasked with styling his daughter’s thick hair. “They also discussed during advisory the history and cultural significance of hair wraps and the discrimination that black people have faced in the past and present based on their hair,” Smith said.

Smith said the school only heard from two parents with concerns, adding, “The day was a success.”

One parent contacted Omar Montgomery, president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch.

Montgomery visited Smoky Hill during black hair-care day and determined students were using the theme properly. He didn’t see any students, white or black, using inappropriate “cultural appropriation” or stereotypes in their fashion.

“I’m actually proud of the students, and I wish the community could have seen the process that went into it,” he said.

He also applauded the school for educating students about race-based hair discrimination. The confusion stemmed from the marketing and the flyer, he said.

“When I looked at the flyer, I was like, ‘OK, what is going on here?’” Montgomery told the Sentinel. 

Nastassia Sisneros, a parent with two children at Smoky Hill, said on Monday she was still disappointed and upset with the theme. She is also black.

“I don’t want to be known for how we care for our hair,” she said.

Sisneros said she’s been frustrated with race relations at Smoky Hill and vowed to pull her students from the school.

Jackson said she would have preferred a theme on black innovators and inventors instead of hair. She noted her son has never worn a durag.

“What does the grease that I put in my hair have anything to do with black history?” she said.

“Did you know it was a black woman, a full-time nurse, that invented the security system? There are so many things you can teach these children.”

Other themes included a “Black Excellence” day, encouraging students to dress in their “sharpest business attire;” 80s & 90s fashion day, shown on the school website with images of a boombox and a breakdancer; and a general day to dress in a culturally representative way.

The district said it was trying to address the issue of race-based hair discrimination, which still plagues the U.S.

In January, a Texas high school told student Deandre Arnold he would have to cut his dreadlocks because of their length, even though he kept his hair up. The Associated Press reported the school suspended Arnold and told him he would not be able to attend a graduation ceremony unless he cut the dreads. The producers of “Hair Love” later invited him to the Oscars.

Such discrimination is in the sites of a state bill with support from Aurora state Sen. Rhonda Fields and other black, female lawmakers. The so-called CROWN Act would ban discrimination on the basis of race, “hair texture, hair type” and hairstyles associated with race such as headwraps and afros.

The bill is pending a signature from Jared Polis.

Fields, who has a grand-daughter at Smoky Hill, said she had not heard of the theme but would be looking into it.