WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Afro Wigs: Tribute or Racially Insensitive?

Nov 15, 2018

A group of students in Macomb dressed as the Harlem Globetrotters for a middle school costume party. A couple of the students are African-American while the rest are white.  As you can see in the accompanying photo, they are all wearing Afro wigs – and that's upset some people in the community.

“I don’t know one black person who saw that as a tribute,” said Byron Oden-Shabazz, who is reviving Macomb’s chapter of the NAACP.

He considers the Afro wigs a form of mockery. He said people need to understand the history of the Afro hair style.

“When black people started wearing Afros, it was rebellion into the idea of ‘I needed straight hair and light skin to be respected. I needed straight hair because I needed to assimilate to the people in power, so to speak,’” said Oden-Shabazz.

“And so, when we see these Harlem Globetrotter wigs, if you look at the history of whites wearing those wigs, it’s typically in blackface.”

Oden-Shabazz said he found the costumes insulting and culturally inappropriate.  And he is not the only one.  Several people addressed the Board of Education about the matter.

Oden-Shabazz said those involved with the costumes might not have been ill-intended -- but they were ill-informed.

Credit Courtesy photo

School District Superintendent Patrick Twomey said he’s talked to others in the community who suggest there is a blurred line. They believe there is a difference between cultural insensitivity as it refers to an entire race versus embracing and celebrating identifiable individuals or groups within a culture.

“Using this (situation) as an example, if students would have come with Afro wigs and just dressed like African-Americans in the ‘70s in general – (that’s) culturally insensitive.  But when they dress as a specific person, they are dressing because they have admiration for that person or a high level of respect for that person,” said Dr. Twomey.

He does not plan to discipline the students involved.

The superintendent said he’s been thinking a lot about the issues raised by the costumes and said he’s treating this case as a personal learning experience.

“I don’t really have good answers yet. But I’m learning more as I go,” Twomey said.

Oden-Shabazz believes one way the school district could improve is by increasing the diversity of its workforce.

Information from the district shows it has 163 teachers and administrators.  Two are African-American, two are Latino, and the rest are white, or roughly 97.5% white.

By comparison, the school district report card shows a different breakdown for students:

  • More than 75%  are white
  • About 9.5% are African-American
  • Nearly 4% are Latino
  • 3% are Asian
  • Nearly 8% identify as being of two or more races. 

“To live in the backdoor of a university, just three or three-and-a-half hours away from the third largest city in the country (Chicago) -- you’re telling me you can’t find teachers or have you not made an effort?  And if you want help with that, that’s what we’re here to do,” said Oden-Shabazz.

He said he is not disparaging the current teaching staff.  But he feels the district should strive for more diversity.

And Oden-Shabazz said the problem extends beyond the school district. He pointed out there are no African-American police officers or firefighters in Macomb even though U.S. Census Bureau statistics show 8.3% of the city’s population is African-American

Oden-Shabazz said he’s lived in Macomb for 19 years.  He likes the city and said it’s generally been a supportive community, especially under Mayor Mike Inman’s leadership.

But he believes a public forum is needed to start an honest conversation about ways to amicably move forward and remedy some of the race-related concerns.