Decolonizing Education: Life of Freedom, Light of Liberation

Black girls are criminalized in school for the way they wear their hair, and these oppressive policies are just one way the colonized education system is intertwined with the criminal justice system. On May 15th2017, two Black girls who attend Malden Charter School in Boston were given detention, pulled from their sports teams, and told they could not go to prom because of wearing box braids to school. The dress code policy at their school says that “students cannot wear drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles such as shaved lines or shaved sides or have a hairstyle that could be distracting to other students (extra-long hair or hair more than 2 inches in thickness or height is not allowed). This means no coloring, dying, lightening (sun-in) or streaking of any sort. Hair extensions are not allowed.” School administrators explain that the hair policy in the dress code aims to foster a culture of education rather than fashion or materialism. But “hair arrangement is a [historically significant] mode of African art,” so why are students being told to reject this part of their culture? At the same time, several schools in South Africa have put restrictions on students with natural hair. For example, the Pretoria High School for Girls told their students to “fix” their hair if they were wearing it naturally. There were also restrictions on corn rows, dreadlocks, and loose braids. This led to school protests in 2016 by students claiming that administrators did not want to accept the fact that they were African. The natural rules were finally suspended in this one high school, but only after a protest and a petition that had over 25,000 signatures.

Across the United States and around the globe, young girls face restriction of education because of oppressive western standards of beauty used as the ideals in schools. These policies are proof that colonialism is driving our education system and criminalizing the identities of non-white students. The colonized nature of our education system contributes directly to the school-to-prison pipeline. As more students are suspended or expelled because of oppressive policies, the more likely they are to come in contact with the criminal justice system. A report done by the National Women’s Law Center that focused on public schools in Washington DC found that Black girls are 20.8 times more likely than White girls to be suspended. Additionally, students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are three times more likely to be in contact with the criminal justice system within the year. Colonialism and racism lie at the core of certain school policies, which in turn pushes kids out of school and into prison.

It is easy to claim that education is a tool for liberation because it provides limitless opportunities to individuals. But what standards are expected to be met in order to achieve those opportunities? We must begin restructuring our education system as a way to decolonize our institutions in order to combat mass incarceration plaguing women across the globe. This restructuring needs to reevaluate both school policies and curriculum ensuring that history is not taught selectively, but instead is inclusive of all identities. Decolonization involves looking at formal systems of education and questioning why we accept them as the universal standard for academia. Why are school systems aiming to standardize the way students thrive as intellectual beings instead of creating interdependence and collaboration among several forms of intelligence? Decolonizing our systems requires us to challenge our notions of what we deem academic. As we do this we will see how art-based education has been written off as an “extra-curricular” rather than essential part of education. Arts-based education teaches students how to connect with theories using emotions and creativity. Furthermore, arts-based education, like storytelling and craft are at the core of certain non-western cultures. When thinking of decolonizing our education in order to decriminalize our society, remember that people connect through words and feelings more than theories and figures. Envisioning decolonized institutions where the diverse systems of knowledge that students bring to classroom is celebrated and not criminalized is essential to thinking about steps toward collective liberation, so I leave you with my own attempt:

Light of Freedom, Light of Liberation

Ajetha Nadanasabesan

To be unfree
is to be big,
in a tragic,
tragic way
that makes us
bask in the grief
of the pink
morning light.

this light reminds
us of the mourning
of another day where
soles on the black
pavement can quickly
be rearranged to be
black souls on the

To be unfree
coerces sense of self
to grow large because
the panic of the red
white and blue
lights is more
terrifying that
the black shadows
of hurricane.

To be liberated
is to be small
in a special,
special way
that makes us
feel connected
to the vast indigo
evening light.

this light reminds us
that the mourning
will still come
but like the way
the salt kisses
the tide,
it’ll be restorative,
it’ll be collective,
it’ll be larger than



(Photo Credit: Newsweek / Max Rossi / Reuters)

About Ajetha Nadanasabesan

Ajetha Nadanasabesan, a Sri Lankan American from Boston, Massachusetts, studies Public Health. She is an aspiring poet and loves all forms of creative collaboration used as a tool for transformative justice.