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Nursing Student Felt Forced to Leave School Because Natural Hair was Deemed “Unprofessional”

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The University of Holy Cross in Louisiana is very particular about the professionalism of the students in their nursing department, but former African-american student, Jada Payadue-Sutherland says their appearance guidelines crossed the boundary of appropriateness and made her “feel forced” to withdraw from the university because of her ethnicity.

Supposedly, there is and understanding that when  a person enters the medical field, he or she must assume an appearance of professionalism to maintain a level of ethos with his or her patients. Sutherland understood this when she began her clinical rounds in Louisiana and ensured her appearance was within regulations, but it would seem this was not good enough for the school’s administration. In fact, one of her instructors even began patting down Sutherland’s hair without her permission. She repeatedly faced harassment about her natural hair from instructors, who said it was too unkempt and too big despite meeting all of their guidelines. Sutherland even took a picture with her hair against a ruler to prove it was shorter than four inches away from her scalp.

Sutherland has dreamed of being a nurse for years and would not otherwise allow her hair to hinder her ability to save lives, but she chose to challenge the pre-existing workforce biases against black women and their natural hair so that other women would not have to endure her same struggle.

When she took the issue to administration, they gave her an ultimatum rather than a solution. After meeting with the head of the nursing department, instructors and the school’s provost, Sutherland was told that she could only remain a student at The University of Holy Cross if she agreed to sign a contract, attend counseling sessions and be placed on probation. If she did not choose to abide by the department’s stipulations, she would have to leave the university. However if she did sign and got expelled afterwards, there would have been severe repercussions.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Sutherland said, “If I didn’t withdraw from the program and I signed that contract, and they found one reason to expel me from the program, that meant I would not be allowed to enroll in another nursing program in the state of Louisiana for five years.” When faced with those options, she felt as though the only safe way to continue pursuing her nursing career was by doing so at another institution.

Sutherland was punished and treated as a delinquent by the university for wearing her natural hair within the very guidelines they created, and she is not the first woman to encounter this problem. There have been various court cases fought over women who believed they were being discriminated against in school as well as the workplace for wearing their natural hair, and, in such cases, the courts typically rule in favor of the employer. Rulings which punish women for not meeting societally accepted standards of beauty and professionalism reflect an implicit societal bias against black women’s natural hair, which the Perception Institute studied in 2016.

Their “Good Hair” Study explored the general public’s attitude towards black women’s hair, and they found that, “black women perceive a level of social stigma against textured hair, and this perception is substantiated by white women’s devaluation of natural hairstyles.” The survey concluded that the general public still expressed explicit bias towards textured hair, but millennial “naturalistas” expressed more positive attitudes towards textured hair than the rest of the sample.

Millennials are notorious for their progressive mentalities, leading to the rise of the “naturalistas”, or women who celebrate the beauty of their natural anatomies. These millennial naturalistas, such as Sutherland, are striving to destroy notions of professionalism that discriminate against women of color with the hopes of creating a workforce where women can be themselves without sacrificing their ability to succeed.

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