Don’t touch my hair!
Non-straight hair is beautiful, normal, and above all human.
While we have made strides in becoming a more inclusive society, Western Eurocentric beauty ideals are still ingrained in our society, creating a society that is hostile towards non-European physical features. The standardisation of straight hair is due to straight hair being the common hair type among White people. Straight hair is ‘good hair’: neater, more professional, and the only type of hair that deserves a seat on the table. Black women and men are repeatedly discriminated against in the workplace, in places of education, in sporting competitions, and in the media because of the texture of their hair.
Here in the UK, Black students’ hair is disproportionately policed at school. In 2020, Ruby Williams was awarded £8,500 after successfully challenging her school’s discriminatory behaviour towards her hair. She was repeatedly sent home from school because her teachers claimed that her afro hair was against the uniform policy and was blocking other students’ view of the whiteboard. It’s absurd that something as uncontrollable as hair is being discriminated against. A child wouldn’t be barred from school because their height is blocking the view of other kids. So why is hair — which is essentially doing the same blocking that height does — punished?
The reality is that hidden under these absurd excuses is racism. Upon arrival in the Americas, enslaved Africans would have their intricate hairstyles expressing their ethnic identity shaved off to erase their tribal identities and cultures. This homogenised the slave population and created a population of hairless, ‘cultureless’ slaves in an attempt to dehumanise them. The concept of “good hair” (remember Beyonce’s famous lyric “Becky with the good hair”?) then developed when mixed raced children were born from relationships between the slave owners and the slaves. These offspring had looser curls, creating a beauty standard for Black women to strive for as their natural curls were deemed as inferior.
Today, Black people still experience discrimination in the workplace and school through racist uniform policies. More prevalent though, are microaggressions that Black individuals experience in their day-to-day lives, with at least 93% of Black people with Afro hair in the UK having experienced microaggressions related to their hair. Unlike blatant racism, microaggressions are subtle and are mostly unintentional discriminatory statements, actions, or behaviour. Despite being called “micro”, they can be as damaging as overt racism, regardless the intent.
These aggressions can be incredibly hard to navigate because of the lack of awareness and the discomfort for the person who is subject to the aggression to explain their lack of appreciation of the comment. So, often they are ignored, but, because they are ignored, it can make the individual feel self-doubt and that they are less than worthy to be heard and understood. And, because the offender does not intend to be racist, when confronted, they tend to be very unwilling to accept that their comment or behaviour has caused offence.
A common microaggression Black people experience is the touching of their hair; a study by Pantene found uninvited hair-touching was one of the most common types of microaggressions, with nearly half of the respondents experiencing it. While such an act seems harmless, although perhaps a bit strange, it makes one feel less “normal” — like an animal at a zoo or a type of circus act that people can’t help but touch due to curiosity.
It is belittling act, making one feel like an outsider and hence people must be educated about it. Organisations should require employees to take mandatory workshops and training to eradicate biased and racist attitudes. JAN Trust offers award-winning workshops that raise awareness of how we can make the world a more tolerant, friendlier place, and actively campaigns against all forms of racism and discrimination.