A Black mother in Chicago is calling for change after her 4-year-old son’s hair was documented as a dress code violation. 

Ida Nelson claims her son, Jett, eagerly asked her to put his hair in braids after he saw someone else rocking the hairstyle. However, his initial excitement for wearing them to class quickly subsided after his private school, Providence St. Mel, deemed them unacceptable. 

"I said, 'We still have policies related to Black hair in 2021, as an all-Black school? I'm really shocked about that,'" Nelson told Today. "We have progressed, we have so much more information. … I thought surely this school would understand the trauma associated with policing Black hair and absolutely not have a policy like that."

Providence St. Mel is located in the West Side of Chicago, a historically and predominantly Black neighborhood. 

"[Jett] was so excited, he wanted to go to school and show the teacher because that's what 4-year-olds want to do — show his friends and his teachers his cool hair," Nelson shared. 

The Chicago mother also alleged that Jett had been wearing braids during his virtual learning to which no one objected. 

According to a copy of Providence St. Mel’s student handbook, braids are not permitted along with several other hairstyles, like dreadlocks, twists and high-top boxes or fades. Nelson subsequently took her frustrations to the school's principal, Tim Ervin. 

Ervin, a Black man, told Nelson that Jett’s hairstyle could potentially be distracting, a comment she described as a "double stab to the heart." Ervin also added that the policy has been in place since 1978.

"It's just one of those things that we have a preference and choose to have that as one of our policies,” he told Today, inserting that there is no intention to target Black hair.  

Nelson explained that she didn’t consider the possibility that her son’s hair would be problematic, given the fact that national conversations around hair have materialized and more states continue to pass the CROWN Act.

An acronym for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, The CROWN Act is a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles, as Blavity previously reported

“Braids and locs are considered inappropriate [because] when they see our Black boys with those hairstyles, they automatically assume they are troublemakers, in a gang, up to no good, just because of the way they have their hair,” Nelson said, according to Block Club Chicago. “Why is it acceptable to tell Black children in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood who already have so many other obstacles to overcome how they can and cannot express themselves?”

But Nelson’s advocacy for her son is not going to end with lambasting his school. She is mobilizing around the issue with alumni and other parents as well as Illinois congressional representatives to encourage them to pass the CROWN Act. 

DuShaun Branch, a fellow Providence St. Mel parent told Book Club Chicago that she too conflicted with the school regarding her daughter’s hair. 

“It goes back to respectability politics,” Branch noted. “It has been ingrained in our culture because the trauma is real. We’ve been trying to survive, and that’s one of the ways to survive is to try to assimilate into what is acceptable for white people.” 

Nelson examined the root of the hair debacle. 

“The source of the problem is self-hatred,” Nelson said. “And we don’t even notice that’s the problem. The problem is we never really were taught to embrace who we are and love ourselves from head to toe in our natural state. I want every last one of my children to learn early what I learned late which is how to embrace yourself and how to love yourself and that you do not have to change who you are, the things that you were born with … in order to fit in with anyone else."

Nelson said she is trying to find a new school for her son — one without a reputation of scrutinizing students for their appearance.