Teaching While Black

Commentary By Jacki Mulay: A Lesson In Hair Controversy

Photo used with permission from Ugo Onwuka Instagram.

Ugo Onwuka is a teacher. Ugo Onwuka has supremely cool hair. So naturally, her students asked her about it. But for Black teachers across the nation, teaching while Black – the title of Onwuka’s popular TikTok series – comes with senseless, oppressive rules that dictate who is allowed to have boundaries and who isn’t.

In a now-viral TikTok, Onwuka describes an all-too-familiar conversation over her new hairstyle while substituting at Spencer Elementary in Spencer, WV.

Twirling her vibrant locks around herself, Onwuka sets the scene. She’s substituting as a wellness class teacher for elementary students. During the day, Onwuka found her student’s attention latching onto their new teacher’s hairstyle. Long strands of bright orange, purple, and silver cascade down well past her waist. When Onwuka moves, her hair dances along with her. They are connected.

Hair is a deeply personal subject. People find a hairstylist they love and cling to them, following them from salon to salon for their particular talents. Hair doesn’t grow out overnight. Growing it and caring for it takes time, effort, and resources. Bad haircuts ruin your day and spoil your pictures and inspire tears. Poor chemical applications and routinely abused scalps can cause devastating conditions like traction alopecia, which experts agree can have a significant impact on self-esteem.

Why are some people’s boundaries respected, while others have to endure questions, scrutiny, and an invasion of personal space?

“Being the only Black teacher in a white space means that my boundaries are always going to be violated because you think I am just an object, not a person,” Onwuka says in another video.

The 2019 Dove CROWN Research Study confirmed that at least 80% of Black women surveyed feel they have to change their hair to fit in at work (C.R.O.W.N Research Study, 2019 p. 4). Black women are one-and-a-half times more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair and Black hair is over three times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.

What’s the impact of hair bias on Black women in the workplace?

For Black women, the price of a job is expected to come at the expense of authentic self expression.

It’s also real dollars lost. Appearance-based discrimination costs the U.S. economy over $500B annually. But it also comes with negative impacts on emotional and mental health, poor self-esteem, and an overinflated economic burden to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance society introduces with strict, exclusive beauty standards.

In her video, Onwuka retells explaining the incident in question to the school’s prinicpal. “It’s impossible to discuss my skin tone without discussing my hair,” she says. Onwuka told BBG the principal agreed, but still asked her to leave. Onwuka also reminded BBG that she was not fired but resigned amid the duress and the conversation around her hair.

The CROWN Act, passed in 2022 by the West Virginia Senate, didn’t make it out of the House. Laws protecting against hair discrimination have only been passed by thirteen states. Two of those states include neighboring Maryland and Virginia. But in West Virginia, it is still not explicitly illegal to discriminate against someone because of their hair, natural or otherwise.

According to the West Virginia Department of Education, 4.5% of public school students in West Virginia are Black, a slightly higher percentage than the West Virginia state demographics, which sits at 3.7% Black. Overall, only 7% of public school teachers in the U.S. are Black. And with current teacher shortages, offenses like what Onwuka experienced only serve to drive more Black educators out of the field.

Black teachers have said over and over that centering whiteness and white comfort is tiring. In Onwuka’s case, she describes how her fellow teachers, all white, prioritized their whiteness above her boundaries and physical safety, leaving virulent comments on her social media posts and talking about her openly at school.

No wonder Black teachers are increasingly likely to plan to leave their teaching jobs.

Black girls are forced to familiarize themselves with hair discrimination from an early age. Over half of Black girls in majority-white schools reported facing hair discrimination, and 100% of those who reported that discrimination saying they experienced it by age 10 (C.R.O.W.N Research Study, 2021 p. 3).

As if the battle for just treatment couldn’t get more strenuous, this week, the HOPE scholarship was deemed constitutional, paving the way for school vouchers and charter schools in West Virginia. But amid teacher shortages and the exodus of Black teachers, reports continue to surface that reveal charter schools, though touting the so-called benefits of being privately run, do not perform better than traditional public schools.

In fact, there is growing research that says charter schools may actually contribute to segregation. Additionally, with just 7% of public school teachers being Black, the likelihood that Black students encounter at least one Black teacher is slim. But we know that Black teachers can improve outcomes for Black students. Students who have at least one Black teacher between Kindergarten and 3rd grade were more likely to enroll in college (Gershenson, Hart, Hyman, Lindsay, Papageorge, 2021, p. 33).

As Onwuka asserts, Spencer is a “conservative white town,” Onwuka says in her video. “And I’m the Blackest thing they’ve ever seen in their lives.”

But teaching while Black shouldn’t come with its own playbook. Will recent Black college graduates like Ugo (Berea, 2022) entering the teaching field feel inclined to work at rural West Virginia schools in t he future? What will the impacts be on the community if so? What opportunities will the district lose if not?

Jackie Mulay is a writer based in Huntington, WV.

Resources: Ugo Onwuka Tik Tok

Roane County Schools

Reader Questions? Contact [email protected] This story prompts the question, were there other incidents that happened other than elementary students asking about her hair? What happened when she went to other schools within the county? How did middle schoolers or high schoolers treat her? When I taught at a high school as a sub in Boone County, my first encounter was a student touching my arm to see if I “felt the same as she did.” Did she have any such encounters? ~ Janna Coleman

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