One of the values that supposedly makes the United States great is respect for individuality – the right to buck the system, to refuse conformity. It’s the key difference between America and communist outposts like North Korea, right? It’s what kept America from remaining a colony of Great Britain, right?
Another is diversity – the belief that the nation is not trying to melt anyone’s ethnicity anymore, but rather celebrating the many cultures that its citizens represent.
So why did school officials and sheriffs in Sacramento, Calif., make such a big deal out of an African American high school student’s choice to wear a strip of kente cloth around his neck as part of his graduation cap and gown?
After all, there are plenty of American schools from kindergartens to universities that allow students to wear Kente or other cultural and ethnic symbols along with their graduation uniforms. Other schools even allow students to decorate the mortar boards that sit flat on their heads for all to see during the ceremony.
— LMU-Loyola Marymount (@LoyolaMarymount) May 9, 2015
And why are so many internet commenters justifying the school’s behavior by stating some variation of “he should have just followed the rules”? Is it because Nyree Holmes, a graduating National Merit scholar who related the entire incident in a series of Tweets, was the only African American student in the Cosumnes Oaks High School graduating class?
Race is almost certainly involved, although in 21st century America, no official would openly admit it. The Elk Grove Unified School District had this to say in their statement about the incident:
“The District’s approved graduation uniform is a cap and gown. Students may wear, stoles, cords or medals that have been earned and awarded to students at prior ceremonies. Unfortunately, prior to the COHS graduation ceremony, school officials were not given the opportunity to discuss with the family the student’s desire to wear the cloth.”
But they also said this:
“Generally speaking, it is within the District’s discretion and prerogative to impose rules for graduation ceremony dress code and attire which apply generally to all students, and which do not discriminate against any specific student viewpoint.”
In the case of Nyree Holmes and his Kente cloth, the officials who confronted him could have used their discretion to not make a big deal of it. The school district suggests they did, sort of:
“The student was allowed to walk across the stage to be recognized and took a formal picture with the principal wearing the Kente cloth. Later, the student was allowed to return to the area where students received their diplomas. The student was given his diploma.”
So they chose not to tackle him on-stage and turn the ceremony into YouTube’s latest viral sensation.
Nyree’s Twitter feed however suggests a different series of events than the school’s release, including confrontations with the student activities director, several teachers and a security guard who tried to stop him from crossing the stage.
Ultimately, the student activities director chose to escalate the situation instead of letting Holmes have his small victory: three sheriff’s deputies were waiting at the end of the stage to remove him from the Sleep Train Arena for the rest of the graduation.
His tweets also fill in the details of the school’s vague explanations like “was allowed to return” and “was given”:
“My dad takes my cap gown and id to try and get my diploma since they refuse to give it to me. And then they refuse to give it to him so we’re sitting there like wtf do we do so my dad comes across this security guard (black of course) that gets me into the exit to get my diploma. And then he takes a pic of me and says “much love brother, stay up and achieve more”
Was there a racial dynamic to the director’s decision? Quite possibly, but that is the problem with so-called “microaggressions” – you can’t look into the heart of a person, and folks have gotten very good at hiding racial motives behind enforcing the rules.
Discretion is a gray line that causes many African Americans to blame these issues on racism while many whites accuse us of “playing the race card.” Discretion keeps whites out of American correctional institutions at the same rates as blacks for the same crimes committed because they seem more “innocent” and “respectable” to the person who has been given authority to decide their fate. Discretion of a police officer over a minor traffic infraction got Sandra Bland one last road trip to the local jail.
Numerous studies have shown that African American people of all ages and genders are policed harder at all levels in American society, by anyone with authority – school teachers, shopping mall security guards, law enforcement officers, even a neighborhood watch guy like George Zimmerman who disobeyed police officers, killed a teenage boy and is still walking free talking smack in the news.
So people are not crazy to suspect that if a nonblack student, specifically a white student, had chosen to “express” himself or herself with an “offbeat” or “wacky” accessory on one of the most significant days of a teenager’s life, that student may not have been escorted out. But who can prove it?
It’s possible that the student activities director was one of those strict disciplinarian types out to teach Holmes – and anyone else paying attention – a lesson: that he was not allowed to challenge the system and win.
As an outspoken student at a majority black high school, I encountered several African American teachers who also specialized in giving students this lesson. I even read a story last year in which some Ghanaian female students were barred from sitting for exams because they broke the rules against wearing “bushy hair” (vs. a low-cut style). In that article’s comment section, Ghanaian commenters also debated on the ridiculousness of outlawing a young lady’s natural hair texture vs. the importance of obeying the rules.
So maybe the issue is not just racial, and it’s not just American. But race is undeniably part of the issue since it was racial pride that motivated the 18-year-old graduate to wear the Kente to begin with.
“[As a] descendant of slaves, I have no firm connection to my roots in Africa,” he told Atlanta Blackstar website. “I wanted to wear my kente cloth as a representation of my pride in my ancestors, to display my cultural and religious heritage. As my particular cloth was made by Christians in Ghana, where the kente cloth has been worn by royalty and during important ceremonies for hundreds if not thousands of years.”
A certain breed of American internet commenters also associated race with kente, ridiculously equating a cloth associated with royalty in Ashanti society with Nazi swastikas and Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia. In their minds, an African American showing pride in his ancestry is equal to a white American declaring himself to be superior to all races and ready to declare war on all nonwhites.
Crazy, right? But a little scary when you acknowledge that kind of mentality quietly runs throughout American society, including people who work in school systems and police departments, and hides behind official policies and their discretion to enforce or not enforce the rules.
Some whites and sympathetic blacks justify heavy-handed policies toward African Americans by saying we are too “mouthy” – we talk too much, too loudly and have bad attitudes, instead of sitting down, being quiet and politely complying with whatever the person given authority tells us to do.
To them, it may be perfectly acceptable that a black student should be ejected from the ceremony over a piece of cloth, because conformity is more important than individualism. As one Guardian commenter wrote: “There are places to show your individuality. School ceremonies are not one of them.”
I also think of my Ghanaian friends’ stories of being caned in class and wonder what kind of punishment young Mr Holmes would have faced if he had openly disobeyed the rules in an African education system. While wearing a traditional cloth, mind you.
In Ghana, the cloth probably would not have been an issue. Holmes would have had plenty of opportunities to learn and display his culture throughout his life, including at school. Instead, he is in California, running into people who think they have the right to tell African Americans what our identity is and what we are allowed to celebrate, such as this Latina Tweeter:
@nyreehesr Were you born in the USA or Ghana? If USA, culture is American! If you want to be Ghanan, move there! YouR an immature whiner!
— Maria Gonzales (@MexAirForceChic) May 29, 2016
In the end, the principal apologized to Holmes and his family, and several commenters were more sympathetic to his decision.
@nyreehesr dude I’m so sorry this happened. your culture should’ve taken precedence and this is honestly very disheartening to hear
— gatoluvr97 (@tashobell) May 25, 2016
Kind words won’t erase the memory of being greeted by law enforcement officers as he descended from the stage. Let’s hope Nyree Holmes’ pride and courage to stand for what he believed in made the experience worth it. The school He certainly got a last bit of education on his way out into the “real world” – well, after a stop at California State University – Fullerton, where he plans to study this fall.