BYU-Hawaii student fighting hair policy now has support of NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Kanaan Barton has been fighting the grooming rules that he says were used to discriminate against him.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is now joining the fight of a Black student at Brigham Young University-Hawaii who has been pushing for months for the religious school to change its policies on hairstyles after he says he was told to cut his locs or face possible expulsion.

Having the national organization on board lends major muscle to Kanaan Barton’s battle not only because the defense fund is the oldest civil rights law group in the country, but also because of its tie to the NAACP, which has a historic alliance with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — which sponsors BYU-Hawaii.

In a letter to the private school’s president sent last week, the Legal Defense Fund pointed to that partnership, and the promise made through it to eliminate “prejudice of all kinds,” as it argued for the school to update its standards for hair that students and staff must abide by. As the rules currently stand, the attorneys say, they discriminate against people of color by not allowing them to wear their hair in ways that may be culturally significant to them, which applies in Barton’s case.

“BYU-Hawaii must ensure that its dress and grooming policies do not target Black and other students of color,” the organization wrote in the message sent Thursday, “and bear no remnants of the prior attitudes held by the LDS Church about Black people and their features.”

The significant partnership between the LDS Church and the NAACP came in 2018 — five years after the Utah-based faith publicly disavowed “the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor” previously believed by members.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was originally tied to the NAACP and is still connected by name and mission, though they are now separate entities. The defense fund litigated and won, for instance, the famed Brown v. Board of Education case where the court determined segregation in schools was unconstitutional. (The NAACP and the LDS Church announced their alliance on the 64th anniversary of that decision.)

The defense fund pushed in its letter for the church and the school to uphold its words in practice. And it called for a meeting with BYU-Hawaii’s administration to discuss the hair policy.

“Together, we can work to ensure that students at BYU-Hawaii, regardless of race or ethnicity, are in spaces where they feel safe and their rights are upheld,” the letter continues.

The defense fund doesn’t say whether it intends to take legal action, but it does make the arguments that the school’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against students and impeding on their right to free expression, which includes spoken and unspoken communication and specifically protects expression of heritage.

The debate over hairstyles at BYU-Hawaii started last September, about a month after Barton had transferred to the school to study computer science. His situation drew widespread attention when it was talked about on social media by the popular Black Menaces group that addresses racial and other inequities at BYU and in the LDS Church.

An active member of the LDS Church, Barton said he was hanging out with some friends by the dorms when a school security officer stopped him, asked for his ID card and questioned whether he was really a student. Barton said the officer then handed his ID card back and told him the length of his hair — with twisted dark brown locs down to his shoulders — violated the school’s rules.

As a private school, BYU-Hawaii can require that students agree to follow certain standards as a condition of attendance. The Hawaii university — as well as the church-run campuses of BYU in Utah and Idaho — enforces a strict Honor Code ordering students abstain from sex before marriage, as well as prohibiting the consumption of coffee, alcohol and tobacco.

In the dress and grooming section, it says hair “should be clean, neat, modest and avoid extremes in styles and colors.” For men, beards are off limits, and hair should be “neatly trimmed.” It doesn’t mention any explicit ban on locs. And there are no longer any specifics on length.

The Honor Code previously said that men should have their hair “trimmed above the collar, leaving the ear uncovered.” That language was removed in an update last year. A “frequently asked questions” document that accompanies the current version of the Honor Code adds that the intent remains for “hair to be cut short and neatly trimmed” for men. But it also doesn’t include the “above the collar” reference or any measurements for acceptable lengths.

There are no outlined exemptions to the rules based on culture.

Barton said locs are important to his family, with his mom and sister both wearing their hair in the same style. And it is significant in his culture as an African American of Afro-Guyanese descent, he previously told The Salt Lake Tribune. He also says he works hard to maintain them, visiting a loctician once a month, to make sure they are neat and clean, like the rules say.

He could not be reached Monday to talk about the Legal Defense Fund’s involvement in his case. A spokesperson for BYU-Hawaii did not respond to a request for comment from The Tribune, nor did the public relations arm for the LDS Church.

Barton previously said he has tried working with the school and BYU-Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III to come up with a compromise for his hair. But he said it has been to little avail. As of late, he has been wearing his locs folded so that they appear shorter, but he said the school’s administrators have told him that’s not a long-term solution, and he will still need cut them off.

He said it’s made him determined to push for a permanent change to the rules to be more culturally inclusive for all students; he is not trying to challenge the faith that he loves, but he feels the hair policy is arbitrary and discriminatory. That includes against Pacific Islander cultures, too, with some valuing long hair for men and which make up a large percentage of BYU-Hawaii’s student body. It also applies to Native American and Indigenous students.

The Legal Defense Fund specifically mentions the latter in their letter, saying that forcing Native students to cut their traditional hair could “further aggravate generational traumas associated with assimilative hair cutting at Indian residential boarding schools” that operated across the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s. Indigenous students were forced to attend and were stripped of their culture.

The organization argues that BYU’s policies for hair and grooming effectively operate in a similar way to those past harmful actions and “unjustly require the people subjected to them to assimilate to the norms of a different culture.”

Rules that prohibit students from wearing culturally significant hairstyles, the attorneys argue, disproportionately affect already underrepresented populations and often makes individuals feel like they don’t belong.

The action from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund is not the organization’s first against a school for discriminatory policies on hair. Similarly, the NAACP previously protested in the 1960s against the LDS Church’s ban on Black men holding the priesthood; the faith’s policy was changed in 1978.

(BYU-Hawaii) An aerial shot of the BYU-Hawaii campus in Laie, Hawaii. The campus on Oahu's North Shore is adjacent to the Polynesian Cultural Center.