All high schools in the Grand Valley gathered throughout the day on July 11th to finally celebrate graduation at Stocker Stadium. The socially distanced ceremony was quite normal despite the masks covering students’ faces and the wide spacing between the grads’ chairs.
Then the last valedictorian of Fruita Monument High School approached the lectern to speak. At some point in his speech, he asked for assistance from his friend to put a durag on him — mind you, both boys are white.
The friend walked onto the stage and spent an awkward amount of time putting the durag on, filling the stadium with excruciating silence. After he had successfully placed the durag on the valedictorian’s head, he said, “We’ll do a wave check at the end,” which elicited very few laughs from the hundreds of guests in attendance.
It may be hard for some to understand the insensitivity of the student’s comment, but in times like these, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the influx of educational resources being provided to people of all ages about race, I, and many others, find the joke unacceptable and steeped in ignorance.
For some background: The durag (headscarf for women) originated in the 19th century by black women who needed something to keep their hair up during labor. Back then it became a marker of inferior status for black people and also served the purpose of making sure light skinned/biracial slaves couldn’t pass as white. It has since evolved and is now a cap worn by Black people for a variety of reasons. It keeps cornrows and other types of braided hairstyles from getting frizzy, and also aids in the process of forming waves in their hair. Although it is simply a piece of cloth used to protect the hair, the durag has taken on the same stereotype that hoodies and other baggy clothes have for Black men. People who wear durags have often been stereotyped as thuggish and low class, despite the fact that it’s simply a hair care item and has nothing to do with violence or class.
After understanding what the durag is and knowing that it has historically been criminalized by white people, it’s clear to see that it was witless and ill-considered for the valedictorian to include this joke in his speech. A charter school in 2018 banned Black students from wearing durags, and the principal’s explanation as to why they created such a ridiculous policy exemplifies why this is such a big problem. He called durags a “direct component of the school to prison pipeline” and said that “they can recede your hairline. That’s not setting you up for success.” The durag is a part of Black culture, just like boxbraids, cornrows, and other protective styles are, and if Black people still can’t wear them without being judged or mocked, then white boys have absolutely no business appropriating durags for their own amusement.
In 2019, the durag and “wave checks” became a meme on the internet where people photoshopped this cultural hairstyle onto different TV characters as a joke. Although joking about it has been normalized, the valedictorian and his friend should have been more mindful of the meme’s racist roots and understand that it wasn’t appropriate or funny, and was uncomfortable at best and offensive at worst for everyone watching.
Note: Video of the entire ceremony can be found on District 51’s Facebook page. The episode described in this column starts at roughly the 41:46 mark.
Photo by Nico Marks on Unsplash