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The hair affair! Detangling hair discrimination

This blog post was written by one of the Trainee Educational Psychologists currently undertaking our Child, community and educational psychology (M4) course. The views expressed are those of the author, and are intended to stimulate further thinking, reflection and discussion around the topic.

School policies on uniform and appearance (including hair) have garnered a lot of media attention in the last few years. At the start of the 2022/23 academic year, an East London school was thrown into the spotlight for its school hair policy. An 11-year-old boy arriving for his first day of year 7, spent the day in isolation. He was sent there because of his “extreme hairstyle” that breached the school’s uniform policy. On this occasion, the headteacher and parent of the child came to a satisfactory conclusion that resulted in an apology to the family.

This isn’t a common outcome in cases of hair discrimination, and there are many schools with specific policies highlighting their expectations around the appearance of hair. For example, Pimlico Academy specifically banned hair that “may block the view of others”. The students and their families understood this to mean afros and staged a boycott.

Other schools also endorse appearance policies that disproportionately discriminate against Black pupils. In 2018, Ruby Williams was repeatedly sent home from school for breaching the school’s policy that stated that “afro style hair must be of reasonable size and length”. Her family successfully took legal action and received an out of court settlement, however, the school did not accept liability.

What is hair discrimination?

Hair discrimination is a social injustice characterised by unfair regulation and treatment of minority groups based on the appearance of their hair. A study commissioned by World Afro Day revealed that 1 in 6 children have bad or very bad experiences at school with their Afro textured hair (De Leon & Chikwendu, 2019). Of these children, they reported name calling, uncomfortable questions, non-consensual hair touching and punitive sanctions for breaching appearance policies.

Many people question how schools enforce policies that impact specific groups. The issue is that hair is not a protected feature in the Equality Act 2010, thus there is no legislation that explicitly references anti-discriminatory practice for hair. As a result, we have policies in school environments that directly and indirectly penalise people with afros, dreadlocks, braids, and other natural hairstyles. This disproportionately affects Black pupils, as they cannot wear their natural hair in a way that doesn’t conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. The NAACP describes hair discrimination as being rooted in systemic racism to preserve white spaces. Others will argue that it is just hair, so what’s the big deal?

What’s the big deal? – A relationship with hair

Black people have a nuanced and complicated relationship with their hair. For many, afro-textured hair carries a plethora of symbols such as wealth, heritage, status, and language. Slavery and colonialism were a time where white European colonisers took the role as the ‘saviour’ to ‘civilise’ the Black people in Africa. They likened their hair to the fur of animals and would use this method of dehumanisation to further justify their reasons to enslave, divide, and conquer. Slave owners would shave the heads of the enslaved to strip them of their cultural identity. The apparent caste system within the society saw an imposed hierarchy of hair texture that valued straighter hair over textured hair. This influenced some slaves to manipulate their hair to align with Eurocentric hair to increase chances of survival. This is still current today as many Black people spend significant time using chemical and heat processes to straighten their hair, despite the danger it poses to them (Wise et al, 2020).

Johanna Lukate delivered a TED Talk on the psychology of hair. She broke down the ways in which people communicate through hair. Ranging from the political statement of the afro to the spiritual symbolism of dreadlocks. Black hair is integral to identity, and the way in which it is styled is a communication of this. Hair shapes how we see ourselves, but we see ourselves through the eyes of others. A survey asking Black and white women about their attitudes towards hair type suggested that white women found smooth hair more beautiful, attractive, and professional than textured hair (Perception Institute, 2020). Further to this, Black women perceive a level of stigma against textured hair. Society validates this perception through the devaluation of textured hair.

So, I ask, if society, media, and policies have constantly shown and told Black people that their hair is unprofessional, less attractive, and inappropriate, what does this do to their identity? If a Black child’s hair is being compared to fur or sponge and not recognised as hair growing from their scalp, what does that do for their personhood? If Black children are constantly being told that their hair breaches the school policy and is therefore wrong, what does that do to their sense of belonging in that school? This communicates in Educational Psychologist (EP) language that the problem is within child and not within the system.

The role of the Educational Psychologist

As EPs working within a child’s micro system, we have a role and ethical responsibility to support the Black children facing hair discrimination. Schools have grown in confidence in their teaching and talking about diversity and inclusion. However, a vast majority lack awareness and training on how to apply the Equality Act to their appearance policies (Mai & Barkway, 2022).

EPs can support this training within schools and communities using culturally responsive frameworks. We can also encourage schools to adopt the Halo Code. It protects staff and students with natural hair associated with their race, ethnicity, and cultural identity. Providing a psychological perspective is unique to our role and I believe we can utilise this in both understanding the impact of hair discrimination and improving Black student’s relationship with their hair through exploratory approaches. It is disheartening to me that the school environment remains to be the greatest factor to influence whether a child wants to change their hair (De Leon & Chikwendu, 2019). It is a reality that saddens me and reminds me not only of the work that can be done with schools to affect change, but of the need for EPs to look within themselves, their context and communities. Historically, psychology itself has a role to play in the treatment of Black people. It is important that we use our voices to start these conversations and advocate for those who may lack the power to do so. So, let’s get talking!

Intrigued by this article?

This blog post was written by a Trainee Educational Psychologist (TEP) during their first year of training in Child, community and educational psychology (M4). They were asked to write about an aspect of practice that resonates with them under the overall theme of ‘Social Justice in Schools and Community Contexts’. The views expressed in the article are those of the author, and are intended to stimulate further thinking, reflection and discussion around the topic. 

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