It took 30 seconds of watching the video of Buena Regional High School Wrestler Andrew Johnson getting his hair cut before his wrestling match for me to have my entire perspective changed.
Like most people who watched the viral video, I had various emotions. The first was confusion as to why he was getting his hair cut before the match. When I first saw the video, I clicked on it without paying little attention to the caption. After watching the video again, this time after reading the caption, the confusion quickly shifted to anger. Then, I shifted from anger to sadness. I was sad for the young man who went on to win his match, but in reality, had lost so much in that moment. What message were we sending to children about their appearance?
I was sad because of previous feelings I had as a school principal about hair and the hair policy we once had.
At the beginning of this school year, my Indianapolis charter network rolled out a brand-new policy in our handbook regarding hair. This year, for the first time in the over a decade, Tindley no longer requires young men to cut their hair. Previously, we had a stringent policy when it came to how young men could wear their hair. Braids, twists, dreads, or hair longer than three inches was not permitted in any of our schools. It was a policy that I strongly backed.
I remember the first time as a school leader I had to explain the policy to a prospective parent who had a son with braids. I told her that we had a certain expectation for how we wanted our young men to grow up and that you do not see too many black male CEOs, black politicians, black doctors, or black lawyers with braids in their hair. They look a certain way, and we did not want opportunities not to be presented to our young men because of their hair. I believed this policy prepared our male scholars for life.
Now, as I look back at the rule in the handbook, I am glad it is gone. Our hair policy had been there since the school started back in the early 2000s, a time where braids and dreads were not common outside of professional athletes and entertainers. The policy was OK at the time because you did not see many young children with their hair styled in that fashion. But times have changed. Braids, dreads, twist, and longer hair for men are acceptable in our society. The hair policy was long outdated.
Yet even when our CEO decided to make the transition away from the hair policy, I had some reservations. I worried about the quality of students that would soon come to our school, thinking that male students with braids or dreads might not be serious students.
These are reservations, that now after seeing the video, I am ashamed that I had. I quickly realized I was not better than the official who made Andrew Johnson cut his hair before a wrestling match. Here I was, a black man, a black male who was principal wanting to deny young black boys the opportunity to attend a quality school because of the length of their hair. It was at that moment I was ashamed and sad. I was sad because I spent my college years studying and motivated by the blacks of the past who overcame racial inequalities and were denied opportunity simply because of the color of their skin, and I had supported denying opportunities because of the length of scholars’ hair.
That 30-second video had a significant impact on me. I got lost for a moment behind a school rule — a rule that I know when created was never intended to deny black boys an opportunity of school, but a school rule that should have gone away with the times. The school rule did not reflect society now.
It was 30 seconds of impact. Thirty seconds where I first was confused at what I was watching. Thirty seconds where I instantly became enraged and angry at the clear racist and bigotry and the mistreatment of black people. Thirty seconds where I felt sad because I thought I was no different than the referee that made the young man cut his hair — 30 seconds of having my eyes opened and having a better understanding of how beliefs can change and how you have an opportunity to do better because you know better.
I want to say personally to Andrew and his family I am sorry that this happened to you. There is no place in 2019 America that this type of racism and bigotry should be allowed and tolerated. I know you won the match, but you lost much more. I hope now you hold your head up high at the conversation you sparked and the attention you bought to outlandish rules that need to be changed and need to be replaced immediately.
David McGuire is the principal of Tindley Summit Academy in Indianapolis. This piece originally appeared on Indy K12.