The Big Payback: Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade and Matthew Cherry Give Hair Love to Student Told to Cut Dreadlocks to Walk at Graduation

Screenshot: CBS This Morning (Twitter)

Texas high schooler Deandre Arnold may not be walking with his graduating class at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas, this year, but he will be walking the red carpet on Oscars night, thanks to Hair Love director Matthew Cherry, producers Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade, and personal care brand Dove.

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Deandre, a high school senior who wears dreadlocks to honor his Trinidadian heritage, has been at the center of the latest controversy in an ongoing national conversation about hair discrimination. Due to a reportedly recent revision to the dress code in the too-aptly named Barbers Hill School District, the teen was told to cut the length of his dreadlocks in order to walk in his graduation ceremony—and was subsequently given an in-school suspension for refusing to comply.

“I really like that part of Trinidadian culture; I really embrace that,” Deandre, told Click2Houston, his mother Sandy Arnold adding: “This is a part of who he is: our beliefs.”

Barbers Hill School District stood by its punitive policy, issuing a sadly telling statement that read (italics mine): “We do have a community supported hair length policy & have had for decades. Barbers Hill is a state leader with high expectations in all areas!” (We’re not sure how dreadlocks defy high expectations, but we digress.)

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Thankfully, Arnold withdrew Deandre, who she says has an A and B-average, from Barbers Hill. But his story has continued to resonate, reaching some of Hollywood’s biggest names. On Wednesday, the teen appeared on The Ellen Show, where, while sharing his story with host Ellen DeGeneres, he said “I’ve strived for this. I deserve this moment” (h/t NBC News).

DeGeneres agreed, making an on-air plea to the school district to reconsider its policy. Then, with help from Alicia Keys and Shutterfly, the daytime host presented Deandre with a $20,000 scholarship.

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Now, the student has even more to look forward to: On Friday morning, he received a very special message from the team behind the Oscar-nominated animated short Hair Love, as producers Union and Wade joined Cherry in inviting Deandre and his mother to join them on Sunday night’s red carpet, with an Academy Award-worthy glow up promised by Dove.

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While traumatic, Deandre’s story is particularly timely—and sadly, not unique. From the New Jersey high school wrestler forced to cut his locs during a match to the first-grader denied entry to his first day at school, hair discrimination has become an issue not only affecting our workplaces, but also our children. It’s an issue the CROWN Act (a bill and coalition co-sponsored by Dove) aims to eradicate by recognizing hair as another form of race-based discrimination. Recently proposed at the federal level, the bill would protect culturally-specific styles like dreadlocks, afros, braids, twists and more.

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For Cherry, whose poignant film depicts a dreadlocked dad mastering the art of styling his young daughter’s hair, the change can’t come soon enough, as he tweeted on Friday:

“Deandre already changed schools but I hope that we are able to help give him the platform that him & his story deserves. We’re so proud & cannot wait to meet him. The Crown Act needs to be passed in all 50 states & can’t think of a better example of why.”

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