Hair Discrimination: How Work and School Dress Codes Discriminate against Afro-Textured Hair

As a mixed-race woman whose tight afro curls are more than unruly, I know a little about what it means to be made to feel other as a result of something you cannot change. What I’m only just starting to learn is that these feelings aren’t misplaced or trivial; they are important and worth writing about because countless others are feeling the same way.

From an early age, we are taught to express ourselves: our individuality, personality, forming opinions about the world around us. Yet something odd happens at school where self-expression reaches a limit. We are told to express ourselves, but only to an extent and within the parameters of a neat and tidy uniform. We are told to be proud of our heritage, only to be punished for one of the most defining aspects of our culture: hair.

Afro-textured hair is beautiful and versatile, but it’s also a whole heap of work. It differs from Caucasian hair in that it’s brittle, dry and prone to breakages. Aside from looking super cool, cornrows are often worn as a protective style, as it helps to lessen the amount of upkeep needed on a weekly basis and to keep as much moisture in the hair as possible. This style dates back to at least 3000 B.C. on women in Africa, with men’s braids making appearances as far back as the 19th century. Whilst most afro hair can be manipulated into these styles, some is simply better suited being worn freely. Speaking from experience, bobbles and scrunchies can cause major issues when used in an attempt to tame hair that cannot be tamed easily. It’s why institutions and companies have no right telling black and mixed-race people to make their hair neat and tidy, because it holds them to Eurocentric beauty standards that don’t apply.

Ruby Williams, repeatedly sent home from school for having an afro, had to go to the length of a court case with the backing of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to get some justice for discrimination against her due to her afro being deemed ‘too big’. Hair is not a girl-only problem because boys don’t get off lightly either. Chikayzea Flanders was given an ultimatum of cutting off his dreadlocks or being suspended from his school (Fulham Boys) in 2018 with the school only backing down once his mother launched a campaign with the EHRC. The worry here is the lengths people have to go to in order to be heard. Worse still, is when the move from school to the workplace does nothing to lessen this subtle but prevalent prejudice. One of countless others with similar stories, Simone Powderly was offered a job in South London on the condition she took out her braids. Hairstyles have zero impact on someone’s efficiency, competency or professionalism and more needs to be done to tackle this problem.

We have to confront the negative outcomes such discrimination will have on black and mixed-race people, especially at a young age. There is a stereotype that afro hair is dirty, what with braids and dreads being kept in for longer periods of time, but this is a prejudice founded on nothing but ignorance. In an article written by Emma Dabiri for The Guardian earlier in 2020, she likens the discrimination against hair to that of skin colour: ‘It would not be permissible to insist that children lighten their skin to attend school, yet policies that forbid black hair in its natural state or ban the use of the protective hairstyles are in effect demanding the same type of assimilation’. The Equality Act 2010 offers some protection against discrimination, however, there is a huge grey area where hair is concerned.

Following the New York City ban on hair discrimination in 2019, actress Thandie Newton discussed her own experiences in a tweet which revealed she wasn’t allowed to have her photo taken on school photo day in primary school because her mum had braided her hair. To say she was happy about hair discrimination becoming illegal in NY is an understatement. But what we have to ask ourselves now is: why is it not illegal in the UK?

Leila Lockley

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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