Whilst some people see hair purely as a superficial concept, it has long been a point of contention, as it has strong connections to religious and cultural traditions for minority communities.
Some people may have been surprised to read news reports of students at Pimlico Academy in London protesting against their school’s new uniform policy, which included a ban on hairstyles which “block the view of others” and any hijabs that were “too colourful”. For a lot of people, hair is just a part of us that we both enjoy and find inconvenient to maintain.
When did hair become such a big issue?
In reality, hair — just as with headscarves that cover the hair — has always been a rarely discussed form of expression for minority communities, whose freedom to express themselves and their beliefs is often restricted by policies that focus on White or Christian forms of physical appearance as ‘normal’ or ‘proper’. Just think back to debates about whether the trends for White women to wear cornrows, head wraps, or turbans in their hair constitute cultural appropriation.
At its root, ‘neutrality’ in the letter of the law becomes discrimination in the sprit of the law.
What is extremely illuminating is the force with which the protesting pupils of Pimlico were condemned by the school’s management and threatened with severe sanctions, to the extent that a group of MPs found it necessary to write to the school expressing their concern.
Though it received national media attention, the protest was only the culmination of a series of disagreements about a perceived whitewashing of the curriculum and increasingly stringent school policies. There are also reports of the school turning a blind eye to incidents of racism.
This case highlights the entrenched but rarely noticed problem of hair discrimination in schools, with effects including not just the immediate damage done to self-expression and free expression of cultural and religious beliefs, but also the internalisation of such norms. The 2019 Hair Equality Report found that over 40% of schoolchildren wanted to straighten their natural afro hair, and that 25% of children had adopted behaviour that suggests — whether on a subconscious or conscious level — they want to have straight hair, such as swinging items on their head to imitate straight hair.
The hidden, insidious nature of hair discrimination means that it is often — wrongly — framed as a matter of ‘fairness’, ‘order’, or ‘appearance’, all of which, indeed, themselves hint at the prejudicial nature of this mindset, which has an ethnocentric, if not White superiority, lean. For example, after a Rastafarian boy was subject to sanctions for not cutting his dreadlocks, the school justified this “as a social issue rather than a religious one”, even though dreadlocks are fundamental to Rastafarian beliefs.
JAN Trust serves ethnic and religious minority beneficiaries from a variety of backgrounds, and we recognise the diversity of their beliefs and needs — indeed, we embrace it. We have long spoken out against the hidden nature of many forms of discrimination — many of which affect our communities — and believe it is vitally important to continue to learn about and expose the various ways in which society frames one ethnicity or religion as inferior to others.
Hair discrimination is just one form of this — there must be more open discussion of how to integrate diverse hair requirements for religious beliefs into a tolerant uniform or dress code policy.
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