A Black mom is speaking out after her 4-year-old son’s Chicago school told her the preschooler could not wear braids because it violates the dress code.
Ida Nelson’s son Gus Hawkins IV, affectionately called Jett, attends Providence St. Mel, a private, predominately Black school on the Chicago’s West Side.
When Nelson received a phone call from the school earlier this month regarding Jett’s hair, she was surprised.
“I said ‘wow, I was not aware that we were still policing childrens’ hair in 2021,” Nelson said.
The independent pre-K through 12th grade school has a “good reputation,” Nelson says. All of its graduating seniors have been accepted to four-year colleges since 1978. Now she’s fighting back against the school’s policies, which she believes are outdated.
Nelson says she attended the school herself 20 years prior and was aware the policy existed at the time but didn’t think it still existed decades later.
“I said, ‘We still have policies related to Black hair in 2021, as an all-Black school? I’m really shocked about that,'” she told “Today” of the conversation with the school. “We have progressed, we have so much more information. … I thought surely this school would understand the trauma associated with policing Black hair and absolutely not have a policy like that.”
Nelson said after she dropped her son off at the school on March 4 she received a call from the school’s dean after notifying her that his braids violated the dress code.
She went to the school to remove the braids and put Jett’s hair in a ponytail, which allegedly resulted in another phone call over a violated dress code. The preschooler had previously worn braids during virtual learning, but there were no complaints at that time.
Providence St. Mel’s student handbook indicates that styles like braids, twists, high-tops, dreadlocks and fades are not allowed. Boys must wear their hair in an Afro or cropped short.
“I asked him what was inappropriate about it, could it be a distraction? And he said that it could be, and I’m like, ‘To who? He’s 4,'” Nelson said of her conversation with Principal Tim Ervin. “His reply was, ‘This is my preference,'” she said. “That also was like a double stab in the heart, that a Black man told me that the hairstyle was inappropriate.”
In 2020, Illinois lawmakers began the process of bringing the Crown Act into effect in the state, which would make race-based hair discrimination illegal.
Nelson said Jett asked her to braid his hair after he saw a photo of someone with a similar style. Jett had been excited to show the style off to his friends and teachers at school, Nelson told Block Club Chicago.
“I was really excited about the fact that he already is kind of developing his own positive and happy self-image,” Nelson said. “I thought it was contributing to him being able to be his authentic self by braiding it that way.”
Nelson voiced her concerns about the school’s policy on social media and received messages from numerous alumni about the way the hair policies have impacted them. She said the general message was one of support for the policy to be changed.
Ervin, who said the policy has been in place since 1978, added that he hadn’t received any complaints about the rules until after Nelson spoke to a local new station about concerns. He said since then, parents have contacted him expressing their support of the policy.
Ervin said the school plans to review the policy because “every year we have an internal review of our policies and procedures.” He said he couldn’t say whether the hair policy would be changed.
Nelson said she is working with legislators to get a version of the Crown Act passed in Illinois. She believes “changing the culture surrounding the rule would let the community know that the school actually stands with us in our attempt to raise mentally strong, as well as highly educated children.”
Nelson said she herself has struggled with hair discrimination in the workplace for years but said, “no matter how much I conformed, it was never enough.”
She said she’s now considering pulling her son out of Providence St. Mel. “The source of the problem is self-hatred,” she said. “And we don’t even notice that’s the problem. The problem is we never really were taught to embrace who we are and love ourselves from head to toe in our natural state.”