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Afro hair discrimination should be legally recognised as a form of racism

4 min read

This week, Marcial Boo from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) responded to a letter signed by myself and other representatives, campaigners and organisations, calling for action to end afro hair discrimination. Unfortunately, the response from the EHRC was lacklustre.

Recent research by Dove has shown that nearly two thirds of Black adults in the UK have faced hair discrimination. This includes the one in four Black adults that have faced disciplinary action or even been sent home from work for wearing their hair in a natural or protective style.

The figures are far higher and more shocking for Black children. The incredible Halo Collective coalition to end race-based hair discrimination describes how 58 per cent of Black students experience name calling about their hair at school, and nearly half of parents say their child’s school policy penalised afro hair.

For far too long, institutions have got away with pushing Black people to conform and mirror Eurocentric hairstyles

The issue has hit headlines after multiple incidents raised the profile of afro hair discrimination, particularly with the focus on racism after the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just last year, school student Ruby Williams won an out-of-court settlement against her school after she was repeatedly sent home because of her afro hair. The school did not accept any liability, although it agreed to pay damages and amend its internal policy.

Earlier this year, Pimlico Academy in London was forced to roll back discriminatory changes to its uniform policy after anger and protests from students, parents and teachers. Strict policies around afro hair styles and the wearing of hijabs provoked anger and a strong sense of injustice, and eventually an apology and change of policy was won.

For far too long, institutions have got away with pushing Black people to conform and mirror Eurocentric hairstyles. While Black hairstyles are widely held to be inappropriate, unattractive and unprofessional – doing untold damage to their self-esteem as well as their natural hair in the process.

Black people are effectively being forced to choose between their education and careers on the one hand, and their hair health and cultural heritage and identity on the other.

That is why I am proud to be a member of the APPG for Race Equality in Education, and to have sent the letter to the EHRC asking them to do more to protect the next generation of children. What’s to stop this type of discrimination happening to other children and workers if we don’t take action to outlaw this behaviour and enforce consequences to discriminatory policies and institutions?

Racial discrimination is illegal under the Equalities Act 2010. However, 11 years later and we are still facing significant challenges in its implementation and hair discrimination remains worryingly common.

Black workers are still routinely discriminated against in the workplace and miss out on job opportunities and promotions. For Black children, their education and self-esteem suffers.

The EHRC has provided guidance on hair discrimination, including in relation to dreadlocks and corn rows as well as guidance around discrimination against people who cover their hair. In its response to our letter, the Commission indicated it is happy to amend or strengthen the guidance in future if necessary. It is also happy to discuss further measures, an offer which is extremely welcome.

When I raised the issue with them this week at the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee, they reiterated their offer and pointed to a small number of individual cases of discrimination that they have taken up and fought.

However, they did not acknowledge that existing guidance is ineffective and that discrimination in this area remains endemic. Without the power to enforce guidelines, little is likely to change.

To move this fight forward we must win legislative change to explicitly include hair texture and hairstyles as legally protected characteristics under the Equalities Act.

Urgent action must be taken to legally recognise hair discrimination as a form of racial discrimination, and to ensure educational institutions and workplaces adapt their concepts of “professionalism” and adopt more inclusive policies which recognise and celebrate racial diversity.


Kim Johnson is the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside and member of the APPG for Race Equality in Education.

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