In previous posts (first here, then here), I spoke about the eurocentric symbolism of the graduation cap and the difficulties it has given to natural haired people of color who are embarking on the glorious journey of graduating from their academic institutions.
I made a strong personal stance and stated that I would choose to break the tradition of the academic regalia by not wearing the cap at my graduation. With this, I asked that all of you do the same in honor of your self, your accomplishment, heritages, decisions to go natural and/or in support of your natural haired colleagues.
The response that I received was outstanding - Young women with natural hair, whom I have never had the pleasure of meeting, wrote to me to say that they were struggling with their graduation cap and were grateful that I had given them a space to honor who they were. Friends of friends from Europe wrote that they had experienced the same issues as graduating students, and members of my own graduating class at the United Nations University For Peace came out in numbers to show their support by removing the cap.
I was further surprised by the reaction of my universities Vice Rector and Rector, who made positive references to my decision to remove the cap, and told our class that we were “mature” in the ways that we challenged the institution, and “the cap was a symbol of that.”
The reactions of my local and global community stand as an example of the power of standing up for what you believe in. You never know how your community or institution will react unless you take action.
With that, I am sharing with you an image from my cap-less graduation. I hope that you will share yours with me as well and continue to encourage graduating students to remove the cap in the years to come.
In exactly three weeks, students from the UN University For Peace will be walking across the stage to accept our M.A. Diplomas. We will all wear our universities signature white-and-blue caps and gowns as a symbol of our achievements. This will be a moment of sheer excitement for our successes and the future that we have worked hard to create for ourselves.
I have taken part in this tradition since the age of homemade-caps in Kindergarden. And each year, I have asked myself, “What am I going to do with my hair?” In Kindergarden, I walked across the stage with a mishap bees nest on my head (one of many attempts in my childhood made by my biracial mother to style my natural hair). In Middle School and High School, I found the solution of braids - although I admit it was a tight squeeze into those small caps. And then in College, I walked across the stage with permed hair pulled back into a simple bun.
This year is a bit different as I have moved away from chemical straightening and synthetic extensions, and have learned to adore the beauty of my natural afro. And so, as I looked over the graduation attire requirements given to us this week, I paused at the word: CAP. The dreaded thought came back, “How am I going to wear this cap now??”
For many people, this may seem absolutely ridiculous - I should just be grateful that I am graduating. I admit, I was thinking the same thing as I started coming up with alternatives to my natural hair for the big day - not taking my cap off until I go home so no one has to see my flattened hair, and even blowing out my hair to fit the tradition. Searching for ideas, I spent a few hours away from work Googling, “Caps with Afro Style,” “Afro Hair Cap and Gowns” and “Caps Natural Hair” so many times to find ideas and yet it seemed that virtually no had ever posted about it, at least online.
Though I was frustrated, it wasn’t until my (white) partner said that this tradition was “unfair to people of color with natural hair” that I really begin to think about it. Where does this tradition come from? Why would an institution with a multitude of races and ethnicities ask people to wear this? And why didn’t anyone at these academic institutions ever think about how it would affect us?
A little research revealed that the Cap and Gown or ‘Academic Dress’ originated from the early 19th Century Europe. As the tradition moved into the United States, committees were organized to develop the standard of academic dress. It goes without saying that people of color were neither included in this conversation, nor were they (heavily) represented within academia at the time. Essentially, the construction of the cap and gown (including shape, height and structure) never included the bodies of people like me.
But how is it that we have never considered changing this system of celebration to suit people from all over the world? How can an academic institution that encourages diversity within their system, not understand just how stressful a moment of celebration can become for us? Even in an international institution, it appears as though no one’s paradigms (or realities) have allowed them to see this issue for those of us who have learned to appreciate our natural hair and bodies.
I may end up walking down the aisle feeling completely out of place, but I will certainly not revert to an old standard of beauty and tradition that doesn’t include my physical, but also very political, identity as an African American woman. We simply cannot accept an age-old tradition that does not include all members of its communities. I hope that other natural-haired women and men (and our supporters) graduating this year will join me in shifting the paradigms by rejecting a tradition that never included us by rocking our natural hair sans cap.