When a wrestler’s haircut is really about a race

Photo: Courtesy of the Johnson Family Andrew Johnson

Peace, goodwill, and good tidings this holiday season were interrupted by the outrageous violation and public humiliation of a Black New Jersey high school wrestler. Andrew Johnson, a student at Buena Regional, was forced to cut off his dreadlocks so he could compete in a wrestling match late last month.

No, it was not another incidence of police or racist violence, but it nearly equaled it for its sheer degradation and temporary emasculation, along with the accompanying sense of powerlessness.

Prior to the match, referee Alan Maloney informed Johnson that he could not wrestle because of the length of his locs. When the wrestler sought to comply with the rules by offering to cover them, the cover was unacceptable to the referee. He was faced with a choice: Either cut his hair or forfeit the match.

Truth is, there was no choice to make. Andrew’s hair is a part of him, a part of his identity. How could he part with it without giving up a little piece of himself, of his dignity, of his worth as a human being?

Anger and outrage have been repeatedly voiced on social media by those who viewed the short video of the young man publicly having his hair chopped off. It has been viewed over 14 million times across the globe.

The wrestler’s mother, after watching the video of the event, said, “It was the hardest thing I have ever seen.”

It was a difficult thing to watch for anyone with any amount of sensitivity, compassion, and empathy. There was even a large show of support among Whites, particularly women. The mother’s note was in response to a parent of one of her son’s teammates who was congratulating her for her son’s sacrifice for the good of the team. But, some sacrifices are too big to make and in the end are not worth making!

As the website Sputnik insightfully reported, “Bits of him were chopped off.” His shoulders slumped as a trainer chopped away his hair. He was helpless against a system that said he must comply or not be a “team player.”

Ironically, the news of this outrage was not initially reported as the disgusting racist misuse and abuse of power that it was.

Mike Frankel of the South New Jersey Today News initially tweeted that the wrestler was the “epitome of a team player. It was either an impromptu haircut or a forfeit. He chose the haircut, then won…to help spark Buena to a win.”

Frankel’s tweet was the epitome of cluelessness, as he missed the real story, which was an injustice of the highest magnitude: a young person being forced to comply with an adult’s unreasonable request, apparently invoked by his racism.

Frankel, however, was unable to see a racist decision, the torrent of Black pain, or a gym full of people complicit in the injustice.

It didn’t cross his mind until it was brought to his attention by many outraged Twitter readers. Frankel later apologized but backtracked, tweeting, “In my mind, it was ‘just’ the ultimate sacrifice by a high school athlete,” he wrote. “According to many of you, I missed the correct ‘framing.’”

In other words, he is still not convinced he got it wrong. But, how else could it be framed? How would he have framed it if little Susie had been forced to shave her head in order to compete? Would he have framed it as “little blonde-haired Susie took one for the team?”

But we get it. Johnson being publicly violated is really not that big a deal. Sometimes you gotta take one for the team, or the school, or the company. “Stop complaining so much,” they say. “It’s not that bad. I don’t see it as racist. Stop playing the race card.”

The rights of the individual only apply to White people. In U.S. society, people of color, especially Blacks, have historically been asked to bury their grievances for the good of the country. Black people are expected to grin and bear indignities. “They just do not feel pain like everyone else.”

In essence, Johnson was bullied, picked on, and picked out to be humiliated and singled out for disparate treatment because the vile, bigoted referee did not like the way he looked. The referee did it because he could, and it was allowed to happen because his coaches, and to a lesser extent his teammates, refused to resist the inhumane request.

The team should have taken a stand on behalf of their teammate rather than try to comfort him in his pain. However, adults, including his coach and the dozens of fans sitting in the audience, allowed this miscarriage of justice to play out right in front of them.

They could not see or refused to see that this was not about this kid getting his hair cut off, but something much, much deeper. Only Johnson’s grandfather seemed to understand the gravity of the event and had to be restrained from running onto the gym floor to stop the hair cutting.

The ACLU Chapter of New Jersey got it right when it tweeted, “This is not about hair. This is about race. How many different ways will people try to exclude Black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry?”

This was a teachable moment. It was an opportunity for the kid’s coach to teach the young people that there are some things more important than athletic contests and winning and losing.

The coach should have invoked principle and demonstrated “real” teamwork by taking his team off the floor. He should have declared to everyone in that gym that “If Andrew can’t wrestle and keep his dignity at the same time, then none of us are wrestling.”

Instead, the bigoted referee handed out lessons in power.

What is more important, an athletic contest or a young man’s emotional well-being and sense of self? Peace and goodwill on earth will not be achieved until all of us recognize the humanity in one another!

Justice, then peace.

(In memory of my loving sister Sonja Denise Roberts)