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The fight to end hair discrimination

What’s being done to address the racist policies and unfair judgements targeting Black people for wearing their natural hair?

With issues such as criminal justice reform currently dominating political discourse, confronting hair discrimination may seem inconsequential to some. What it represents, however, is another hurdle to overcome in our quest for racial and economic justice.

Routinely, POC individuals are forced to internalise the messaging that Black hair and its protective styles are inferior to what’s acceptable beneath the Western gaze.

In a 2019 research study carried out to identify the magnitude of this, 80% of Black, female participants reported having to change their hair to fit into a professional setting.

It also found them to be 1.5 times more likely to be sent home. Meanwhile, a 2020 Gallup poll concluded that one in five Black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work.

Within schools, Black hair is labelled as ‘distracting’ and ‘disruptive’ resulting in the exclusion and even expulsion of students. 46% of parents say that their children’s school policy wrongly penalises Black hair, and 1 in 4 Black adults recount a negative experience at school in relation to their hair texture.

‘Black hair is constantly scrutinised where our non-black counterparts do not face such opposition and contention,’ says creative director Wofai JE, who wrote a play titled Scalped covering this very topic.

‘As someone who’s worn locs, afros, twists, and braids for years, I realised that some opportunities have been denied to me simply because I was rejecting a European beauty aesthetic. We cannot find it acceptable for any of us to have to change our natural identity to gain employment or access to school.’

Among the many examples of this – namely teen wrestler Andrew Johnson being forced to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match in 2018 – one recent incident stands out in particular: that of FINA announcing its decision to ban Soul Cap’s afro-friendly swimming cap from this year’s Olympic Games.

Alice Dearing

‘The athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration,’ it said, adding that Soul Cap doesn’t ‘follow the natural form of the head’ and gives those wearing it an unfair advantage (a statement that’s in no way been backed by any scientific facts).

Though the undeniably racist ruling has since been put under review following global condemnation, it highlights a lack of research into different cultures from official bodies. Soul Cap’s products are of course bigger than standard swimming caps because they’re designed to accommodate thicker hair. Prohibiting them only reinforces barriers into the sport for under-represented groups.

‘Having thicker hair doesn’t make Black swimmers less capable,’ says journalist Nyima Jobe.

‘But not having access to products that could make swimming more accessible and desirable could put more Black people off from trying it in the first place.’
Halo Code: Black hair guide launched to stop discrimination - BBC News

 

So, what’s being done about it?

Since the YouTubers who changed the landscape for natural hair with their online movement in 2018, a fair amount indeed.

In the US, thirteen states and more than two dozen cities have signed The Crown Act (an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), explicitly preventing discrimination against hair texture and style. It was proposed by the Crown Coalition, which believes race to be a social construct, defined not solely by skin tone, but shaped by hair as well.

‘We will continue to ensure we can use our crown to freely express who we are natively,’ says member and politician Katherine Clarke. ‘Discrimination against Black hair is racist. It stops equality in school and the workplace.’

Unfortunately, while it’s a huge victory for natural hair acceptance – encouraging BAME communities to embrace their Blackness and rebuke dominant standards of beauty that only recognises straight, “manageable” hair – the struggle persists, with 37 states yet to sign.

New York City Says Businesses Can't Discriminate Based on Hair | Colorlines

In the UK, The Halo Collective – a group of 30 young Black Brits who’ve undergone hair-based bias – established The Halo Code to guarantee Black people the freedom and security to wear their hair as they want, without restriction, judgement or, ultimately, discrimination.

As a result of this, and a petition started by the British Beauty Council, all UK hairdressers will, from this week, be trained to cut and style Afro hair. And a recent review of the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for hairdressing, agreed it was paramount to represent the diverse range of hair types and textures of clients across the hair and beauty sector.

With stories of salons unable to cater to it and the resultant damage caused extremely common, the law addresses a major gap in professional expertise for this demographic.

The compulsory introduced guidelines will answer fundamental questions often asked by salons such as ‘what is it, what are the different types, and what are the best products to use?’ in an effort to erase the notion that Black hair is ‘difficult to handle.’

Hairdresser Errol Douglas backs petition on more training for afro hair | Daily Mail Online

The standards also apply to beauty therapy, wellbeing, and holistic therapies. ‘We need to stand up, make a change for the sake of Black clients,’ says Helena Grzesk, COO at the British Beauty Council.

‘Until now, tens of thousands of hairdressers have no qualifications in cutting and styling afro and textured hair. Our aim is to amplify and celebrate the voices of all the communities the industry serves to ensure each and every one of us feels seen, heard, valued and excited to engage with the beauty industry.’

On a wider scale, multinational consumer goods company Unilever declared in January it would be donating £170,000 to Black grassroots organisations tackling hair discrimination. It also launched the Crown Fund UK in partnership with Dove to develop workshops supporting teachers in discussions about hair discrimination in schools. The move followed the lead of the similarly named Crown Act.

‘Who would have thought that to just simply wear your hair as it is, a very normal everyday practice, is a defiant act,’ says Professor Carol Tulloch of University Arts London. ‘Natural hair movements are confidence building and offer the reassurance to choose to wear ones hair naturally.’

Black Hair, Black Voice - DH@WMDH@WM

Within the Black community, every strand of hair is a symbol of power, rich culture, and beauty – not less desirable or less deserving of praise.

Black hair bias is not a vanity issue, it’s a human rights issue that forces people to conform to white beauty standards and cements negative stereotypes.

Across the globe, Black people been disproportionately burdened by policies and practices in public places – including the workplace – that target, profile, or single them out for natural, textured hairstyles that aren’t permed, dyed, relaxed, or chemically altered.

Despite progressions and claims that beauty is successfully achieving inclusivity, it’s due time the world began striving to unlearn the stigmas and micro aggressive terms used to describe Black hair and challenged the Eurocentric ideals of hair we’ve been brainwashed into holding.

 

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