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New EHRC guidance highlights the importance of tackling Afro hair discrimination

4 min read

Take a minute to think back to your childhood. Imagine getting ready for school, dressed in your uniform, excited for the day.

Take a minute to think back to your childhood. Imagine getting ready for school, dressed in your uniform, excited for the day. Many assume this is a typical process for all pupils. However, for far too long, countless Black children have been apprehensive while getting ready, having been told by teachers their natural hair does not look “smart” or “appropriate” for school. How can a child’s natural identity pose a barrier to their own learning?

According to the 2019 CROWN Research study, 53 per cent of Black mothers say their daughters have experienced race-based hair discrimination as early as five years old. This has a severely detrimental impact upon a child’s sense of identity and self-confidence. It would not be acceptable for a colleague to criticise your appearance at work, so why do we allow teachers to criticise core aspects of a child's appearance? Separate research in 2020 found more than half of Black children had been sent home from school for wearing their hair naturally or in a protective style. The same study found 58 per cent of Black students had endured name calling and racist bullying at school because of their Afro hair. These statistics highlight the flaws in the all-too-common rebuttal: “It doesn’t matter; it’s just hair.”

The link between hair and identity is deep-rooted, particularly for communities of African and Caribbean descent. “Black hair” has long reflected “Black history,” with various styles indicative of status, identity and theology. This is underscored by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) statement that: “race is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and Afro hair is inherently linked to race.” 

It is important to understand that “Afro hair” is used to describe many hair styles associated with communities of African and Caribbean heritage. “Afro hair” not only relates to Afros as such, but also to protective hairstyles like braids, twists, cornrows, plaits, locs and so on. When a school takes the decision to prohibit these styles, they place pupils sharing a protected characteristic (in this case race) at a disadvantage, compared to pupils who do not share that characteristic. This is likely to constitute discrimination on the grounds of race, which is illegal. 

The link between hair and identity is deep-rooted, particularly for communities of African and Caribbean descent

When I founded Enact Equality, a non-profit that advocates for greater race equality, I knew I wanted to create a powerful movement made up of organisations, political leaders, and public figures to tackle core issues like these. That is why I was so proud to generate cross-party support to launch the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Race Equality in Education. The group is administered by Enact Equality and is now one of the largest APPGs in Parliament. Within its first year, Enact Equality and the APPG joined forces to launch a national campaign against Afro hair discrimination in schools. The campaign was backed by several renowned organisations and politicians, including Dove, Pantene, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Kim Johnson MP, Lord Woolley, Wera Hobhouse MP, and many more. Our work made headlines and led to both the EHRC, and the (then) prime minister’s office, agreeing to publish new guidance against Afro hair discrimination in schools.  

I am incredibly pleased with this outcome. Our priority is to protect pupils and we want to ensure that no child is ever discriminated against because of their appearance. The EHRC aims to publish the new guidance for schools across England, Scotland and Wales this year. We can only hope that the new Prime Minister commits to maintaining her predecessor’s promise. It is crucial that all political leaders place the wellbeing of children at the heart of policy-making.

The EHRC milestone is only the first stage. There is much more work to be done to make schools safer and more inclusive environments for children. However, celebrating all hair types, instilling self-confidence, and encouraging children to feel proud of their identity is an important step in the right direction.

L’myah Sherae is director of Enact Equality

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