Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Natural hair discrimination in education and the workplace

Ongoing conversations surrounding the existence of hair discrimination which targets black people in the workplace and school environments have been refuelled this year after an 18-year-old student was sent home from school for breaching their uniform policy. 

Ruby Williams was compensated £8,500 earlier this year after she and her parents took legal action against her school for being repeatedly sent home for breaching their uniform policy. She was told her “afro hair should be of a reasonable size and length”. 

However, Ruby’s case was not in any way an isolated incident. It is reminiscent of 12-year-old Chikayzea Flanders who was told to cut off his dreadlocks or face suspension, and the experience of 5-year-old Josiah Sharpe who was banned from a school playground for having an “extreme haircut”. The “extreme haircut” in question this time was a fade to hide his traction alopecia. This decision was defended by his school’s headteacher who stated that students should not have “hairstyles that will detract from learning”.

Such policies are implicitly culturally biased

Both nationwide and internationally, black students and workers are policed and punished for their natural hair, often being told their hairstyles are too big, too extreme, or more covertly that they breach uniform policies. 

I spoke to several black Warwick students who had all witnessed or experienced similar situations growing up. One student told me that she has noticed that she is more likely to be told she looks ‘professional’ when she wears a wig as opposed to wearing her natural hair.

Other students I spoke to recounted instances where they had seen their black friends told to take out their coloured braids which supposedly didn’t comply with school ‘policies’ whereas non-black students with coloured hair were rarely subjected to the same treatment. Such policies are implicitly culturally biased and actively equate black people’s hair with more superficial uniform policies disregarding both the historical and cultural significance of black hair.

Professionalism has for a long time been closely linked to European features

Describing this policing as discriminatory is accurate and fair. Micro-aggressive language used to describe black hair, often suggesting that it is  ‘unprofessional’, ‘untidy’ or ‘non-traditional’, has real-life implications for black children and adults alike who may face suspensions, exclusions or revokals of employment opportunities. All of these consequences happen because of a societal bias that caters to, prefers and rewards eurocentrism and punishes black individuals who do not assimilate to these standards.

Professionalism has for a long time been closely linked to European features and mannerisms but to quote Winnie Awa, the founder of black hair care website Antidote Street, it is “absurd that hair should be used as an indication of how an individual might perform at work” and equally absurd how a hairstyle can seemingly distract from or reduce the quality of one’s education. 

In the multicultural societies that we exist in, dismantling and dealing with these biases both as individuals and as communities is clearly long overdue and should not be brushed aside as a ‘non-issue’. Even more so when it has been apparent for several years now that when worn by non-black women our hairstyles are praised and labelled as ‘trendy’ and ‘cool’ – seemingly the beauty of black hairstyles are praiseworthy on everyone except us.

Black women thus feel more pressured to tame their coils and curls

The effects of hair discrimination are not just societally damning but also psychologically damaging. A study by Perception Institute in 2017 found that one in five black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair and are more likely to feel anxiety about their hairstyles. Another recent study by Dove found that black women are 80% more likely to change their hairstyles to meet required norms at work than white women. 

Black women thus feel more pressured to tame their coils and curls through chemical relaxers or treatments which often lead to hair damage, breakage and burns. 

However, this is not to say every black woman who chooses to chemically alter her hair or wear protective styles such as wigs and weaves is pressured into it. Black women should have full autonomy over their hair and what they choose to do with it on their own terms, not on the terms of discriminatory policies and rules. 

There are recurring incidences of black hair being subject to public scrutiny and shame

These ideas have recently been amplified through the empowering emergence of natural hair movements that aim to teach black people how to care for their natural hair and ultimately “celebrate the hair that we have been taught to disown”. 

Yet, despite the overwhelmingly positive impact of these movements, there are recurring incidences of black hair being subject to public scrutiny and shame. This indicates that it is time for black hair to be protected on a larger and more legitimate scale to prevent more cases of hair discrimination and denounce both explicit and implicit discriminatory policies once and for all. 

The current Equality Act includes “protected characteristics” which extends to skin colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins but does not mention hair. It should naturally fall under the protection of ethnic characteristics, but instead, it creates a grey area and ultimately acts as a loophole for discrimination to exist in.

The discrimination of black hair has a long, dark antecendental history

Emma Dabiri, author of Don’t Touch My Hair is among several others who believes the Act should be amended to be explicit and clear about hair. Her petition that calls for the Act to protect Afro facial features has garnered over 60,000 signatures. 

The question of why hair should become a political affair may be asked in response to such requests, but black hair has always been political and for much of history laws and policies have actively worked against its expression.

In the 1700s, for instance, Black Creole women often wore elaborate hairstyles that eventually caught the attention of white men. To address this ‘problem’, Spanish colonial Governor Don Esteban Miró enacted Tignon Laws. These required Creole women of colour to wear tignons which are scarves or handkerchieves to cover their hair to indicate that they were part of the slave class despite many of these women being free. 

7 out of 10 of their participants had been discriminated against for their hair

This, and the fact that many slaves were forced to shave their heads to strip them of their culture and subsequently their identities, shows that the discrimination of black hair has a long, dark antecendental history. These biases, whether conscious or unconscious, should not be perpetuated and repeated in today’s society.

In the US, Senator Cory Brooker has proposed a bill to ban hair discrimination explicitly. The Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act was passed firstly in California, later being followed by New York and New Jersey. The act bans hair discrimination on a federal level with Brooker saying “Implicit and explicit biases against natural hair are […] a violation of our civil rights”. If such an act can be passed in the US, then it is obvious that the enactment of similar legislation or an amendment to current ones here in the UK to protect black hair is entirely plausible and necessary. 

Across the pond, we see the emerging work of Goals4Girls – a UK non-profit football development and mentoring organisation for girls which started a ‘My hair My identity’ campaign after one of their participants was suspended from school for wearing a natural hairstyle. They have also reported that 7 out of 10 of their participants had been discriminated against for their hair and a further 3 out of 10 had faced exclusion from school. Their campaign, in turn, aims to “help young women embrace their identities, cultures and histories”, according to founder and CEO Francesca Brown.

Hair discrimination has no place in our society

Goals4Girls are now using their social media platforms to amplify the voices of young black women by allowing them to share their personal stories and celebrate their natural hair. In turn, they are sending out messages of empowerment and love that aid in dismantling unconscious and internalised beliefs that black hair needs to be ‘fixed’. The organisation states that education is the key to making systemic change and aims to educate institutions like schools “about the importance of hair for children of colour”.

Hair discrimination has no place in our society, and it is only by educating ourselves, our peers and our institutions and by pushing for legislation that will finally protect natural black hair and the identities tied with them that change can truly manifest. Supporting and donating to organisations such as Goals4Girls and signing Emma Dabiri’s petition are steps you can take to help move closer to positive change.


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