Catholic schools slow to accept cultural significance of black hair

Feb 20, 2020

by Sarah Salvadore NCR

On the first day of third grade, J.B. wore cornrows to school. When his grandmother, Joan Batts, went to pick him up, she saw the principal waiting for her. Rubbing the top of J.B.’s head, the principal told Joan, “We don’t accept this,” according to a complaint filed in the New York State Supreme Court.
J.B.’s school, Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica, New York, spelled out a ban on natural hairstyles in its grooming policies. They gave the family a week’s time to change the child’s hair. Unwilling to do that, the boy’s mother, Lavona Batts, moved her son to another school and filed a discrimination lawsuit.

Batts’ case isn’t unique. The problem of hair discrimination disproportionately affects black students. A high schooler in New Jersey was forced by a referee to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his wrestling match. A Catholic school in Louisiana sent a 11-year-old girl back home for her braided hair. In California, a high schooler was suspended for wearing braids.

At least 11 Catholic schools in Queens, New York, the borough of New York City where Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy is located, adopt strict hair policies. They assert that natural hairstyles are “extremely distracting” or “attention seeking.”

According to critics, these grooming policies are Eurocentric in nature, displaying a bias against hairstyles associated with racial identity.

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Catholic schools setting Eurocentric grooming policies shows inconsistency in the “Christian message,” said Dr. Kathleen Bellow, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.

“We tell children, ‘God is in you. But, in society at large, we only accept the parts of you that look like us. Because God wouldn’t have cornrows. God wouldn’t have dark skin. God looks like us — God is white.’ And I think that’s the impression, that God in goodness is affiliated with white culture,” said Bellow.

Schools, she said, encourage all students to wear styles similar to white people. Whiteness, say scholars, is considered the pinnacle of Western Civilization. “It’s not just that it’s a good civilization, but it’s the blessed civilization — the one considered to most closely exhibit God’s will,” said María Teresa (MT) Dávila, former associate professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School, a Protestant seminary located in Newton, Massachusetts, and now associate professor of practice at Merrimack College in North Andover.*
Last year, New York State passed amendments to ban hair discrimination.

An amendment to the New York City Human Rights Law protects people with “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state” without facing bias.
Neither law, however, applies to religious institutions such as Catholic schools.

But the schools should observe the regulations, said Dávila. Policing black students’ hair is a vestige of America’s racial and segregated past, she said, harkening back to the public hygiene codes that were imposed on black people.
As more black Catholic schools close down due to lack of finances, and as the public school system continues to fail, black families are sending their children to predominantly white Catholic schools, for a lack of better options. “And these schools are not prepared to receive folk who are ‘other’ than them. We have lived predominantly segregated lives in the Catholic school system,” said Bellow.

Blackness and the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has been a vocal anti-racism advocate. Yet, church leaders and institutions have not adequately responded to the problem, critics say.

The U.S. bishops’ document on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” calls out racism as a sin, but does little to implicate white privilege or demand self-reflection that goes beyond “historical wrongs”.

“So a school system, a church or Sunday school is not feeling pushed to do the kind of self-reflective reading and action that would lead to changing the dress code policies. And that’s the problem with this document,” said Dávila. It allows the bishops to get away with not demanding that their schools re-look at their dress code policies, she said.
C. Vanessa White, professor of spirituality and ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said that the 1979 pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” contained stronger language than the 2019 document, yet little changed. While institutions of higher learning are preparing leaders to be sensitive to cultural differences, she said, administrators who form and implement school policies lack such knowledge.

“Who is teaching them how black people’s hair has been historically weaponized against them? We are confronted with leadership in educational institutions who are still very much Eurocentric,” said White.
What White found especially concerning is that schools are looking for loopholes to enforce their policies, instead of “being pastoral, ministerial or disciples of Christ.”

The teachings of Vatican II, said Bellows, have not been catechized to the Catholic community at large. While Gaudium Et Spes recognized the importance of culture in the full development of people, few in the church embraced it.
“And that’s why you still have a Catholic school administrator who would treat a child so unkindly, because she’s protecting the whiteness of Catholic Christianity, instead of protecting the human dignity of this young man,” she said.

“There are young men in the seminary who are chastised for wearing their hair in braids or twists. You can’t be a priest with hair that way. So the lack of appreciating cultural diversity runs throughout the church. And this is happening at a time when we are recognizing six African Americans as candidates for sainthood,” said Bellow.
Dávila points to the “heavy clericalism” in the church that forces homogeneity. Voices that try to raise the issue of racism and micro-aggression are pushed aside. “It’s [clericalism] not going to allow a relook into our religious school policies that are damaging to the human person.”

Effects on children

When a child is sent back home for their hair, it has a deep psychological and spiritual effect, according to critics of school hair policies. “The child is made to feel there is something wrong with them. And that’s a trauma that can’t be erased,” said White.

Batts admitted that her son loved his cornrows and was “humiliated, distressed” and felt unaccepted. She tried talking to the principal, but received no response. While she looked for a new school for her son, her mother began researching the law. They approached attorney Oliver Koppell to file a lawsuit on their behalf, alleging discrimination.

“This is a matter of significant emotional effect on people. The way people wear their hair is an important aspect of their being. It’s like trying to regulate a Sikh’s turban,” said Koppell.

The lawyer said it’s been difficult to get the school to respond to the lawsuit. “We tried to serve them with a copy of the summons and complaints, but they kept sending our process server back,” said Koppell. A few weeks ago the school finally accepted it through their lawyer, but Koppell has yet to receive an answer.
John Quaglione, the deputy press secretary of the Diocese of Brooklyn, of which Immaculate Conception Academy is a part, said that the board of directors have amended the school’s policy and as such, there is no longer any hair policy listed in the student handbook.

The updated handbook is not yet available on the school website as of this publication. The academy’s site does feature photos that include a number of girl students who are wearing their hair in braids, cornrows and other longer natural styles.

Hair braiding is more of a shared experience, and in many cases a family-involved process over steaming cups of tea or coffee, where many hands change. It follows a familial network of touch and community, even in salons. But when a center of education imposes hair policies, it sends out a message to black children that everything they hold dear and familial is not going to help them flourish in school, say critics of the hair policies.

“That is at the root of racism, at the very heart of how we’ve experienced racism in this country, which is that blackness does not help people flourish, and therefore it has to be beat out of them,” said Davila.

Church and the perception of culture

The natural hair movement has been growing in the past few years and many black people are embracing their identity and culture. At the Oscars this year, “Hair Love” won for best animated short. The film is a poignant and joyful tale of accepting and loving natural hair. Walking the red carpet with the producers and director was Texas public high school student DeAndre Arnold, who was told he couldn’t attend graduation unless he cut his dreadlocks.

Bellow said that American society views blackness through a superficial lens, without understanding that “the hair, the music, the dance and the food are really expressions of the culture.”

The perception of African culture, is heavily influenced by Western ideals, she said.

The church, said White, needs to move beyond its place of isolation and ignorance, and embrace different cultures. While the faith is booming in Africa, India and South America, the church has done very little cultural preparation for people that come from those regions.

“The church has to do the hard work of understanding God’s creation, diversity in God’s creation, and then practicing that appreciation we talk about in glowing terms in our social teaching,” said Bellow.

Taking the legal route is not going to get policies changed, because the law makes an exception for church institutions, said Davila. She thinks that the arguments need to be theological and ethical — going back to Catholic social teaching. And for this, the bishops need to lead the way.

“We talk about protecting the family, we have the March for Life. But what about protecting the black family?” she said.
The academics say that Francis points to diversity as being essential to the human family. He stresses that diversity is an attribute of a God of mercy. But bishops have been less out front.

“We can cry racism all we want within the Catholic Church and schools, but if we are not actively noticing cultural and racial biases in dress codes and how schools function, we are not going to make the changes,” said Davila.

*María Teresa Dávila’s professional affiliation has been updated.
[Sarah Salvadore is an NCR Bertelsen intern based in New Jersey.]


Colonists down through the ages, always showed no respect for the cultures of those they colonised.

The RCC were always on the side of the colonists and indeed were colonists themselves.

Our own Ireland was an RCC colony, politically and spiritually.

Mind you, the current Irish generation are calling “time” on the RCC here.

Not before time!

The whole business of the RCC in the US having objections to the natural hair styles of these people is neo colonial behaviour.



Pat, I don’t think you are seriously intellectual to make such shallow, flimsy and flippant remarks. Very lacking in depth. All cultures have a different ethos, standards, biases and prejudices. Any behaviour or value system which diminishes the dignity of any person is morally wrong. Various institutions, establishments and state agencies have standards, principles and codes of behaviour. Schools also have an ethos and a code of dress style and behaviour. These are essential for a harmonious atmosphere for learning. However, the issue of hairstyle should not be a criterion for discrimination towards any person or group irrespective of faith or colour. In our own country we discriminate against the travelling community and other minorities. Any discrimination which devalues and dehumanizes others should be challenged and outlawed. Similarly hate speech directed at particular groups should be met with severe penalties, prison if necessary.


Your comment merely shows that you don’t appreciate the cultural meaning of black people’s hair, you racist.


10.28: If you are referring to my comment at 12.17am, then I think you definitely need to return to school for further education. Racist is an easy word to use but utterly meaningless re: my comment.


You are a racist pure and simple because you have the white supremacist’s view of the nature and importance of hair in African diasporic cultures. When you have gone away and educated yourself so that you understand where this kid and his mother are coming from, come back and make an apology for your imperialist entitled attitude.


The interview with Gatto is so slimy. He’s the classic plausible priest in public, dressed very nicely, no doubt with white cuffs and cufflinks, coiffed hair, latest trendy spectacles, and spouting all the right language. Get the “celibate, holy, obedient priest” stuff he goes on about. As if he was living that himself… But, we know that he is not. And, sadly, that is the case with so many clergy. Living duplicitous, double lives, and essentially living a lie. It’s not healthy of them, or for the Church. At least + Pat is open and honest and transparent about what he is and what he is up to. There’s an integrity to that which is lacking in so many of our clergy. Sadly.


I think most of the errant priests and seminarians aka the summer sluts from “summer of love” have move on and made new lives for themselves.


The church is all about power and privilege and nothing else. The wonder is it’s taken this blog this long to get round to racial privilege!


what do you mean when you say the church.My little parish (church) is not about power and privilege, rather christian discipleship, friendship and faith


Except if your small corner of the church was actually about discipleship it wouldn’t belong to the biggest financial empire in the world or else would do something to challenge the church. What you call discipleship is merely a focus on a small part and is ignoring the problem, hence is not discipleship at all.


Interesting read here about Jean Vanier and the patriarchal Church and power that facilitates abuse:
The special set-apart, superior, exalted nature of the clerical class is at the heart of the vast majority of abuse in the Church, be it from Vanier, or from Gatto who is the subject of the video @ 1:43 am, or from future abuse that will occur at the hands of seminarians in the future who are still being schooled in this patriarchal, exalted, unaccountable clerical culture. There is a sickness at its very roots, and until the roots are ripped out, it will continue to contaminate our Church through its members, the clergy.



Yes, that was a good article in NCReporter. There wouldn’t have been this ‘warts ‘n’ all’ honesty in NCRegister; the rag is too cowardly to be that truthful.

The power clergy have over non-clergy; the deference they expect, but don’t deserve; their abuse of power over lay people and their arrogant sense of entitlement to it: all are inevitably cultivated in a heavily patriarchal institution, like the Romanist Church, which believes that Jesus gave authority to a handful of fogeys and which has, therefore, excluded…and alienated…about 90% or more of the Church from the structures of governance and teaching. It was in this foul seedbed of moral corruption that the old fogey, Vanier, preyed on vulnerable women and procured for his cult-leader, Fr Phillipe, others for him to abuse. And all of the abuse wrapped up in the outwardly attractive, justifying packaging of pseudo-spiritual, pseudo-biblical self-serving nonsense.

The tendency to dominate others comes inevitably in any hierarchical institution, but especially in one which claims a supernatural magisterium.

Human vanity and self-seeking is so strong a trait that the history of the Romanist Church is littered with the corpses of missed opportuites for spiritual cleansing and advancement. And behind it all lies a corrupt Romanist clergy.

There is a lesson here but, remarkably, it still hasn’t been learned: until the Romanist clergy are driven out of the Church, by whatever means morally necessary, the abuses will continue. We can begin by starving these leeches out: by denying them OUR hard-earned cash; by forcing these parasites to fend for themselves.

How did that Sixties iconic song go? ‘He ain’t heavy: he’s my brother.’ Well, if he’s a Romanist priest, he’s freakin’ far too heavy. So dump him. 😆


I think it is best for primary and secondary school pupils to conform to some sort of uniformity, Bp Pat; otherwise, they tend to get bullied.


10.36: I think you are right. Schools have to set guidelines and codes of discipline and behaviour. It’s essential and in 38 years of working in schools ‘hair’ issues have never been a difficulty. Trying to present as a defender of all kinds of rights is not conducive for a good learning environment. Teachers in our Catholic Schools are to be highly commended for their sense of tolerance, respect, inclusivity and openness to the multi levels of faith, cultures, creativity and giftedness within their schools.



Your comment is self-defeating.

Life in general is diverse; schools must reflect this, including life’s LGBT component.

Not to encourage acceptance in schools of life’s human diversity can only encourage intolerance…and the bullying you decry.


Hair hair must be a slow day today but your point is taken hi. I saw an add for vocations on EWTN last night. It was strange to say the least. If you are called to priesthood and don’t respond beware judgement day. It was along those lines sort of. There was another short piece on how to make a Catholic 🥞 pancake. Toss nicely campers but.


aw ffs you are obviously a reject seminarian who hasn’t got over the fact you weren’t lovely enough to ordain.


To the person writing them. Grow up, move on and get a life.

The career in journalism must not be working out for you. 😂


I see that IICSA has published a report about child sexual abuse in Westminster – as in Parliament – and amongst politicians. It’s pretty hard hitting. I wonder when the report on the other Westminster and + Nichols and others will be out, and what it will say. I think we probably all already know that it will be excoriating, especially of + Nichols, who came across as petulant, angry and disdainful when he was giving his evidence. ” Who are you to be questioning me” was written all over him. I suspect that there will be many of his clergy in Westminster who will not be sorry to see him brought down a peg or two. I don’t sense that he is very popular with his clergy. The ex-Anglicans particularly have the knife out for him.


Paul the Apostle was fussy about personal presentation, too, and sought its conformity to HIS cultural and personal norms. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he devotes roughly half of Chapter 11 to sounding off, repetitively to the point of tedium, about men with heads covered and women with heads uncovered during the Agape, and goes on to make a dig about the unnaturalness of men’s having long hair.

Paul was a very, scrupulously controlling man, quite possibly an obsessive-compulsive.

The roots of personal appearance and dress today, across thebreligious spectrum (including Catholic schools) undoubtedly lie in the near-mania of this man with a background in murderous Pharasaism. What else?😕


Magna is now seemingly a close personal associate of St Paul. You couldn’t make it up! What an arrogant drunken fool.



I didn’t have to be ‘a close personal associate of St Paul’ to comment about him: nearly all of the information I conveyed is verifiable from study of his personal character and history. But then, you don’t know much (if anything) about this, which is why you have to resort to a ‘make it up’ criticism of my post at 2.35.

Paul’s mental state (not his faith) is an interesting feature of his character: that he was controlling is unquestionable from his missives challenging, or condemning, the behaviour and practices in Christian communities that were unacceptable to HIS standards. Paul did not appreciate, much less value, cultural diversity. This MIGHT make him an obsessive-compulsive; I don’t know. But then, I didn’t say for certain that it did.

And it does not take a genius to draw from Paul’s energetic three missionary journies the conclusion that this was a man driven by a zeal bordering on absolute fanaticism. And fanatics are never reasonable people, and cannot, usually, be reasoned with. The mark, all in all, of a deeply controlling, subjugating individual who constitutes his own, personal magisterium. It is probably why a man like Paul could draw up a hit-list of those he believed would not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, in direct contradiction of Jesus’ teaching that we should not judge one another in terms of moral worthiness. But then, I did say that Paul was controlling. And controlling people will inevitably overstep boundaries.


2.35: What utter nonsense from Magna. Pure makey up and it fails to appreciate that many cultures and religions adapt various styles of dress, hairstyles, marriage customs and rituals and express their unique identities in colourful creativity and imagination, especially in hair creations. Nothing got to do with Catholicism or Christianity. How do you explain the Hindu bald head styles, the beautuful African styles and the modern habit of deliberate shaven heads? Don’t you like to blame the Catholic Church for every ill or problem? Perhaps the Church is responsuble too for your nasty, vulgar dysfunctional and propensity for hatred……Oh dear!!


It is one thing having cultural traits, like head shaving; it is quite another coercing people to adopt them. And it is arrogant in the extreme claiming divine authority for that coercion.
Paul was a master at turning people’s heads to his ideas, not to God’s. He was, like many revered and unquestioned spiritual gurus in history, allowed too much defernce, and too much implicit faith, than was good for any individual, and for any local Church.
That you fail to see the cultic character of the early assembly means inevitably that you haven’t tuppence worth of understanding about how the Romanist Church developed historically on highly clericalist foundations, and of why it did so.
But then, from your posts here, you’re neither bright nor learned.😕


4.13: A Wikipedia interpretation. More of your self righteousness and arrogance.


Fr Ray revealed: “I’ve cried about it too. Day-and-night I’ve cried about those things because I feel I didn’t deserve them and genuinely I didn’t deserve that kind of stuff.”
Don’t you now feel a little bit guiltynow, Bp Pat, that he may have also cried over the blog?



Ahhhhh! All teary-eyed here. Cos poor ‘Fr’ Ray is too sensitive for criticism. The truth is he’s like EVERY Romanist priest: they just don’t like criticism, deserved or not.

I have news for you: if you seek celebrity (and Rat is positively hungry for it), then be prepared for comment on EVERYthing, from your style of hair, through the way you walk and talk, to the way you, well, dance.

Grow up. 😠


4.23: Margaret – what explains your permanent state of anger, bitterness and jealousy? Could it be that you are devoid of obvious talent and feel impoverished when up against those with great gifts, creativity, imagination. You are a pathetically sad creature. .


4.23: Grow up – Magna’s clarion call to Fr. Ray. It’s laughable, coming from the maestro of infantile, pubescent, raging madness. The classic bully boy. One wonders how many little boys or girls this twit bullied in the school yard? His crazy behaviour deemed him unfit for Maynooth Seminary, so we ought to be thankful to God for such discerning judgment. We should treat this but with thevdisdain he shows others. Go Mags, go…..back to your slug hole.


Despite the abuse, Fr Ray quickly recovered and added, “that he is determined to continue with his showbiz endeavours, and would dearly love to represent Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest.”


Former Liberal Democrat leader David Steel has quit the party and the House of Lords after an inquiry said he “turned a blind eye” to claims of child abuse.
Elsie must be getting worried now, Bp Pat.


Upcoming articles
“How I got Conan kicked out and how I got away with it.”
“It was not me in found in bed, it was someone who looked like me.”
“Sean Hickey, please don’t leave me.”
“David Dysky, I gave Pat your instagram.”


12.54: Did I not say in my original comment that any discrimination against another person based on hus/her hairstyle should not be tolerated: that any discrimination which devalues or dehumanizes others should be outlawed and challenged. My words. Not racism. Lest you continue with your racism card, I have no tolerance for any ethos which might dictate that a particular kind of hairstyle makes someone different, thus deserving of negative, discriminatory judgment. I abhor cultural, religious or social bigotry in all its ugliness. Now if this isn’t clear enough…..perhaps you should open the Oxford dictionary for clarity on the meaning of the word “racism”! Just a thought.


No. Your comments elsewhere in your original comment indicate you are a racist and the fact you say you are not does not change that.


Went to Mass at Our Lady’s in Preston, Lancaster Diocese today. The PP is insisting that there is to be no of shaking hands at the sign of peace, due to possible cornonovirus. The Chalices and holy water fonts are still being used. Seems an over reaction to me? Nobody in the Parish has reported any symptoms.


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