"I felt like the whole world was just staring at me."
Just like Andrew Johnson, the New Jersey wrestler who was forced to cut his locks or forfeit a match in 2018, Nicole Pyles, a softball player in Durham, N.C., was recently told to cut the beads from her hair or be benched.
They are children who wanted to help their teams, only to be made to feel less-than because of the way they choose to wear their hair. Forced to comply in front of teammates, students, parents.
Black children, of course.
Because even our hair, the strands that grow from our very scalps, must be policed.
Pyles, a sophomore at Hillside High School, was waiting in the on-deck circle at the top of the second inning during a game against city rival Jordan High last month when the first base coach for Jordan, who is white, approached the field umpire, also white, and the two spoke at the mound.
The field umpire then walked to Hillside's dugout, where the home plate umpire, who is Black, was already standing.
At first, Pyles was told that her braids, which had clear beads on the ends, were covering her number on the back of her jersey. So she did what she could to put her hair in a bun and tuck them out of sight.
That wasn't good enough. It was made clear to Pyles that she either had to get the beads out of her hair or she couldn't keep playing.
According to Pyles, she'd had the braids in for around a handful of previous games this spring, and the same white umpire was a game official for at least one of those games. He said nothing to her at that time.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rulebook does state that while players are allowed to wear bobby pins, barrettes and hair clips, they cannot wear beads.
It's clearly a culturally biased rule, as braids with beads are rare on white children but are a rite of passage for many Black girls — I can still remember the hours I'd spend sitting between my mother's knees as she parted and plaited my hair into thin box braids, placing Carolina blue and white beads on their ends. In my younger daughters' library is a book, "I Love My Hair!" in which the young girl happily shares the "tap-tap-clicky-clack" sound her beads make as she walks to the store with her mother.
"Ask yourself: who else wears beads?" Pyles said of the rule to the Charlotte Observer. "Only Black girls. Well, people who have coarse hair. I'll say it like that. The rule is unnecessary. If you're able to tie your hair down and it's not blocking your vision, it's not slapping your face during the game, it's not hurting anybody else [it's not a problem]."
Pyles' teammates got to work helping her take the beads out, with someone yelling to the crowd for scissors to literally cut her hair on the field. Others tugged at her braids to strip the pearls off.
Not only did she have to play the rest of the game with her hair looking a mess, "I felt embarrassed after. I most definitely felt disrespected," she told the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "I just felt like the world was just staring at me. Why me? Why anybody, for that fact?"
Making matters worse from Pyles' point of view, it was Senior Night, and there were parents and team alumni in the stands.
They were there to celebrate and send off the team's graduating players, yet she was targeted during what should have been an uplifting night.
Maybe it's because the bar is so damn low when it comes to such situations, but it is heartening to see that Durham Public Schools is standing by Pyles publicly. Durham was one of the first cities in North Carolina to pass its own version of the CROWN Act, which bans discrimination against natural Black hair and hairstyles.
A DPS statement this week said the district will work with both the North Carolina High School Athletic Association and the NFHS to review policies "that on the surface seem fair but are culturally biased and inappropriate. ... Durham Public Schools supports our students’ right to free expression and opposes unreasonable or biased restrictions on Black women’s hairstyles.”
In its statement, the NCHSAA cited the NFHS rule and essentially shrugged; the organization "empathizes" with Pyles' experience, but the rule is in place and it was up to Pyles' coaches to enforce it before the game began.
The NFHS has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Pyles and her father are calling for the no beads rule to be eliminated from the NFHS rulebook; they also want Pyles and her teammates to receive a written apology from the Jordan High coaches as well as the officials.
A teenage girl embarrassed, disrespected and humiliated. Because of beads.
Because Black people are policed everywhere, for every reason that can be cooked up.
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