January 12, 2010

Teacher's aide chopped Native boy's hair

Here's a story from May 2009 that those of us in the Native media didn't catch. It's still worth looking at for what it tells us.

Thunder Bay mom wants answers after teacher's aide chops off son's hairA Thunder Bay woman is demanding an explanation after a teacher's aide at her son's school cut his long hair—an action her lawyer says is clearly assault while the Crown insists there are no grounds for charges.

CBC has agreed to the mother's request to remain anonymous.

The seven-year-old boy had chin-length hair before the incident last month. His mother said staff at McKellar Park Central Public School were aware her son was letting his hair grow so that he could take part in traditional First Nations dancing.

The mother told CBC News she was stunned when her son told her it was a teacher's assistant who lopped off 10 centimetres of his hair.

"I said, 'Why did she do this? Did she say anything?'" said the mother. "And he said, 'No, and after she cut my hair, she took me by the shoulders and forced me to stand in front of the mirror. She made me stand there and said look at you now.'"
NAN calls for justice and accountability in hair-cutting incident

Nishnawbe Aski Nation is calling for a review of the decision not to lay charges in the cutting of a seven-year-old First Nation student’s hair.

By Rick Garrick
“Nishnawbe Aski Nation wants an explanation of the circumstances that led to their decision not to lay charges against the teacher’s assistant who violated the child and traumatized him when she cut off his hair,” said NAN Deputy Chief Alvin Fiddler, explaining NAN is concerned about both the processes and decisions made by the Thunder Bay Police Service in its investigations and the regional Crown attorney in their assessment of the situation, which occurred in mid-April at McKellar Park Central Public School in Thunder Bay.

“What we have now is confusion as the Thunder Bay Police say the responsibility for charges rests with the Crown and the Ministry of the Attorney General saying the responsibility rests with the Thunder Bay Police. First they claimed it wasn’t in the public interest, and now for the first time, without ever having consulted with the child’s parents, they say it’s ‘to avoid revictimizing the child.’”
Thunder Bay teacher's aide crosses a cultural line

By Isha ThompsonIt was only two inches of hair cut from the head of a seven-year-old Aboriginal boy by a teaching assistant in Thunder Bay on April 16, but the significance of the act was so much more than just a school teacher stepping over the bounds of a student-teacher relationship.

The fallout from the haircut became a lesson in cultural awareness, and the message sent was clear: Tampering with the sacred and the traditional beliefs of the first peoples in Ontario will not be tolerated.

"When you've chopped off someone's hair you have taken away their pride," said traditional healing coordinator Teresa Magiskan. She works with the the Anishnawbe Mushkiki Health Centre in Thunder Bay.

"The worst thing to do to someone, historically, is to take their hair," she explained. Magiskan was reminded of past centuries where men were shamed by their enemies in battles by having their hair taken from them.

Magiskan, who has been involved with the cultural teachings program at the centre for the past five years, said even the length of hair and the way it is styled can be incredibly symbolic in Aboriginal culture. She said some traditionalists believe that the cutting of hair represents a time of mourning the loss of a loved one.

The boy's mother--­who asked not to be named--was quoted in the Globe and Mail comparing the importance of hair to Aboriginal culture as the Kippot or yarmulke is to Jewish tradition. Hebrew men wear the caps on their heads as a sign of respect to their religion.

"You have to respect that," she said. "It's the same thing."

The reality is, however, most people are not aware of the symbolic nature hair has in Aboriginal culture. That was apparent in the reaction to the event after the hair cutting incident was reported to the public. A diverse range of opinions were voiced when it was reported that the teaching assistant would not face charges, but would be suspended from her job for choosing to cut another parent's child's hair without permission.

Social networking sites and comment boards were the perfect places for people to vent. More than 12,000 people joined a Facebook group that requested members sign a petition demanding "justice" and serious consequences to be faced by the teaching assistant and school board.

Many posted comments on sites that said the boy was a victim of discrimination and called for the teacher's aide to be charged criminally.

"This is outrageous! If anyone cut my child's hair without permission, I would be demanding the police to charge them. I hope that this parent does take this T.A. to court and wins," read a comment on the CBC Web site on May 26.

Others couldn't understand why there was so much anger towards a teacher, who some argued, was attempting to help the boy remove hair from his eyes.

"Some hair was cut. Big deal. Unfortunate, but it grows back," read a comment on another site.
Comment:  First of all, the facts of the case aren't clear. One article says the aide cut two inches; another says she cut 10 centimeters, which is close to four inches. Big difference.

Also, the articles don't say whether the aide cut the boy's hair solely across his forehead, to help him see better, or all around his head. Again, big difference. Clearing his eyes doesn't change the overall length of his hair, or its symbolic value, presumably.

The articles imply that the aide cut more than just the hair off his forehead. First, few children have four inches of hair hanging over their faces. Second, the initial article states that "the seven-year-old boy had chin-length hair before the incident." Again, cutting only the hair off the forehead wouldn't change the overall length. So the aide gave the boy a two- to four-inch trim around his head.

It seems pretty obvious she was making some sort of statement about the "inappropriateness" of the boy's long hair. Otherwise, why stand him in front of a mirror? If you're just trimming the bangs off his forehead, that doesn't require a visual inspection.

Hair-cutting = assault?

Was this an assault? Yes, I'd say it was a mild form of assault. It was akin to slapping the boy, painting a scarlet letter on his forehead, or taking off his pants to search for contraband. It had to be hugely embarrassing even if it caused no permanent physical harm.

Of course, some schools still allow corporal punishment. Naturally, I oppose this. I say keep your hands off the kids unless they're in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.

But would I prosecute the aide for the assault? No, probably not. The ignorant twit undoubtedly thought she was doing the right thing. She may not have violated an existing rule--although there should be one to cover this situation. Putting her on trial would mean delving into the subjective area of whether she harmed the boy or not. Some jurors probably would say no, making the trial a waste of time and money.

Seems to me a suspension was the correct penalty. Put a note in her file saying she violated the boy's religious or cultural rights. She shamed the boy, but she also shamed herself. From now on, locals will know her as the dummy who wrongly cut a boy's hair. Unless she goes on to greater things, this will be the lead sentence in her obituary.

Why this case matters

The stereotype here is that non-Native values are better than Native values. I.e., that short hair is better than long hair. That the child has no legitimate reason to grow his hair long, so he must be an undisciplined "wild" child who needs care. That long hair is a sign of defiance, a threat to the established order, that government agents must nip in the bud.

Well, it is a sign of defiance in terms of asserting that Native values are different but equally good. It does pose a threat to the established order in terms of noting its inflexibility and irrationality. That kind of defiance and "disorder" is what we call freedom--the freedom to be different from the white Christian norms of the US and Canada.

For more on a related case, see School Needs to Regulate Hair?


Kat said...

Native American Boy's Right To Wear Braids Moves To U.S. Appeals Court

al oof said...

i can't imagine a situation in which it would be ok for a teacher (or teacher's aide) to cut a kid's hair. when does that ever happen? if his hair was in his face, a barrette would suffice.

i just can't believe there was innocence on the part of the aide. what could they possibly have thought? not only were they being ignorant, i think they were being malicious.

of course, i am speculating like crazy, but cutting a kids hair at school seems totally bizarre to me.

Chance said...

al oof,

I was thinking the same thing, this was intentionally malicious. in the article I think they say both the teacher and the aide were aware of the fact that the boys parents wanted to grow his hair out and why???

the thing I don't understand is why was she so fixed on the boys hair. its not like it was THAT long, chin length???, I've seen boys from all diff ages and grades in public school with hair long down their backs!!! it seems like she may be a bigot and racist. she knew he was growing his hair out and why, she didn't take their culture seriously AND at the same time was opposed to it.

also anyone with any sense and general knowledge would know that if a group of people have one or more OBVIOUS things in common its obviously favorable/symbolic in their culture. if you go to a synagogue with out knowing anything about jewish beliefs and you see the men all come out with yarmulkes, you are going to assume that it is either spiritually symbolic or favorable(or both) among those people, either way who are you, especially as an outsider, to say whether it should be as important to those people as it is. whether she understood the boys culture or not she obviously understood how much having long hair meant to him and his fam, she should have respected that, but most bigots and racists wouldn't.

Kat said...

@ Chance:
Check this one out: The 4 year old boy was suspended, clearly not racially motivated (he's White). The boy has chin length hair as well, it's just that 'longer' hair is 'for girls' and thus forbidden. Where would society end up if we didn't make sure that there are ridiculous laws regarding what is appropriate for which gender?! ;)

Anonymous said...

I say let the boy now cut the hair of the teacher aide, then make the aide stand in front of the mirror so the boys family (who will be present) can say in concert - there, look at yourself now.

Filmi Girl said...

Hi - I've been following your blog for a couple of weeks now and I find it really informative! Thank you for your hard work.

I agree with Kat that this was probably motivated out of a duel ignorance about Native beliefs and a lack of tolerance for anything that appears to violate the teacher's idea of gender norms.

I follow Indian (as in Asian) news media and this kind of racist attack happens a lot to Sikh boys.


dmarks said...

I sometimes change the adjective "Indian" to "India" when referring to the nation of India. Such as "India News Service".

Likewise, when I refer to people from there as "India Indians", there's no confusion at all.

"East Indians" is the best term to use, because of the East Indies (a geographic area that contains Indonesia and few other countries, and is not India at all).

Rob said...

Good point about the aide's gender bias. Unless she also cut every girl's hair that was too long, she was clearly prejudiced.

Another good point about hair's symbolic value. It doesn't even matter if the boy was a Native growing his hair for religious reasons. He could've been a hippie child instead. Whatever the reason, he and his parents chose to let his hair grow.

Therefore, cutting it was as much of a statement as letting it grow was. The only exception to this would be if the boy's parents literally didn't care about his grooming. I.e., if they were letting him go "feral" like a wild animal. The number of times that happens outside of TV shows must be vanishingly small.

I like the idea of letting the boy or someone cut the teacher's hair as a public punishment. That would be extremely fitting. It would make the shaming effect of the act evident to the adults who still don't get it.

P.S. Many people call the people from India "Asian Indians" these days.

Chance said...

@ Rob

the gender bias makes sense, long hair on native MALES is what stands out most to outsiders. it could have been both bigotry and gender bias. if he was a hippie growing his hair even, thats still bigotry and gender bias. The fact that she disregarded his and his families culture and spirituality by cutting his hair is what crosses the line to racism. or maybe it was just bigotry, Im just having a really HARD time imagining what the heck was going on inside her mind when she decided to humiliate that boy, and WHAT was her problem that she had to go so far as to cut his hair in a class room AGAINST his parents wishes??? I just don't get it.????