MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend some time now talking about hair. Yes, we are. If you think hair is inconsequential and not worthy of the attention of serious people, then we'd like to know why there've been reports of thieves in Venezuela holding women up at gunpoint to steal their hair. We're going to find out more about that in just a few minutes.
But first, we turn to a story closer to home. It's about a little girl named Tiana Parker. She was in school earlier this month when her parents got a call. It wasn't because she had acted up or gotten a fever. No, it was about her hair. Now that was upsetting enough, but the story took another turn when her tearful interview went viral.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why are you so sad?
TIANA PARKER: Because they didn't like my dreads.
MARTIN: It turns out that the school, Deborah Brown Community School, in Tulsa, Oklahoma had a policy against dreads, afros and other hairstyles they considered faddish. They said that Tiana had to either change her hairstyle or not return to school. Well, support for Tiana came from all corners of the Internet and beyond. People started Facebook campaigns in support of her. They signed petitions demanding that the school apologize and online books were made in her honor about the beauty of black hair. We've called Tiana's father Terrance to tell us more about what happened next. Mr. Parker, thank you so much for joining us.
TERRANCE PARKER: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Can I just ask you first what you thought when you got that phone call? You know, it's - I don't know about you, but it's always nerve-racking for me whenever the school calls in the middle of the day. I always think either, OK, what did they do, or do they have a fever? So what was your reaction?
PARKER: Well, honestly, I was - my reaction was like, what is it now because that wasn't the first time that I got a call from them. They actually called me a couple days before about her shoes, and said her shoes wasn't acceptable. But this day, they called me about her hair and told me it wasn't in their policy for her to have it. And she had it last year, so I didn't understand that.
MARTIN: Yeah, what about that? I mean, I'd heard you say previously that she'd had the locks - she had dreadlocks, for those who aren't clear on what we're talking about here. Had anybody said anything about the dreadlocks previously?
PARKER: They actually did. They said they liked it. She told me that a couple of her teachers and, I think she said the assistant principal or maybe even the principal, told her that they liked her hair, and that's why I was surprised that I was getting a call that she could no longer be in school because of her hair.
MARTIN: Were they saying that you had to either cut them off or take her out, or were they literally expelling her because of it?
PARKER: At first, he didn't even know how to take the hair - the guy I'm speaking about. He called me and tell me that you can take it down with a comb. And I had to explain to him that I'm going to school for barbering, and no, I know exactly what you've got to do. And you got to cut her hair, and I'm not going to cut my daughter's hair.
MARTIN: You have to cut it all the way down. You'd have to cut it all the way down, right?
MARTIN: Right. Exactly.
MARTIN: For people who aren't quite aware.
PARKER: I explained it to Tiana.
MARTIN: Why did she want to wear dreadlocks? Do you remember? It was her choice, as I understand it.
PARKER: It was her choice. See, actually, a couple of my friends has dreads, and she's seen the - his dreads - and was just liking them. And her mother showed her a few women online that had the same type of hair. And after she showed her a few pictures in her phone, she just fell in love with it. And we just sat her down and explained to her, if you do get this, in order for you to change the hair style, you will have to - we explained it like, you will have to get a haircut like daddy. That's how we explained it to her. And she understood it. And she was like, I still want it.
MARTIN: Did you know that Tiana was as upset about it as she was until she did that interview? I mean, had she been that upset?
PARKER: I knew she was upset 'cause I know my daughter and you know when things are different.
MARTIN: Everybody doesn't understand what it is that this is about. I think some people might have viewed this as racist. I think in first hearing about this...
MARTIN: ...They might think this is something where people are not getting that, you know - that this is a predominantly white school where they're not appreciating this African-American child. But this is a predominantly African-American school, is it not?
MARTIN: And the administrators are prominently African-American, right?
MARTIN: So what do you think - I just want to read something from the parent-student handbook. And it says that hair styles such as dreadlocks, afros and other faddish styles are unacceptable for safety reasons. Girls weaved hair should be no longer than shoulder length. Boys hair is to be short and neatly trimmed. Boys are not allowed to wear earrings. And some people have noted, so you're letting girls wear weaved hair, which is purchased, you know, hair from other people and that's OK, but it's not OK to wear hair as it grows naturally.
PARKER: Yes. I'm glad you asked that question because for them to even say that - there's teachers on that staff that has dreads. So their policy is very contradictory.
MARTIN: Well, you know, but some people would argue that there's a lot of privileges that adults have that kids don't have. I mean, adults are allowed to do lots of things that kids aren't allowed to do at school. Like, for example, some schools don't allows kids to have sugar during the day, but they're not going to tell adults they can't have soda. You know what I mean? So some people might argue that's an adult privilege. I'm just...
PARKER: But - yeah, but that's not even the same. You know, I understand what you're saying, but that's not even the same. Your hair that's naturally growing out your head is impossible for somebody to say is unprofessional, if it's natural. Hair's natural, not professional.
MARTIN: What do you make of the response that has happened outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma and outside of the school community? I mean, what do you think people are reacting to?
PARKER: I'm very honored to be in this position I am because I feel like voices are being heard now. I feel like before, people went through things and people just went on about their business, and I'm taking a stand for what I believe in.
MARTIN: I was asking you earlier that there are those who are arguing that this is racist. You're saying it's not racist...
MARTIN: ...But what is it? What is it?
PARKER: I don't know what to call it. It's just not a right policy to be placed into a school. I feel like they're worrying about the wrong things. Education is important and not someone's hair, you know, especially if it's not affecting anyone. My daughter's hygiene was never an issue. Her hygiene with her hair or her body was never an issue. So for them to focus on some hair instead of her education, which she may - making A's, is ridiculous.
MARTIN: That was Terrence Parker. He's the father of seven-year-old Tiana Parker who was sent home from school for having dreadlocks. He joined us from Tulsa, Oklahoma. And you are a barbering student by the way?
PARKER: Yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: What's your specialty?
MARTIN: OK. All right. Well, good luck. I'm sure you do a beautiful job.
PARKER: Thank you. I appreciate it.
MARTIN: We should mention that since Tiana Parker's story came to light, the Deborah Brown Community School has revised its dress code. The new code does not make references to hair, and the school's board president released a statement saying quote, it was not our intent to cause any harm to Tiana Parker or the Parker family by our actions. If any harm did occur, I apologize to Tiana and to her family, unquote. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.