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Emma Dabiri
courtesy of Instagram/@emmadabiri

Author Emma Dabiri is fighting for Afro hair to be protected by the law

The ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ author is taking matters into her own hands with a petition to amend the Equality Act

Earlier this month, London student Ruby Williams made headlines when she was awarded an £8,500 settlement in compensation for being repeatedly sent home from school over the course of two years because of her afro hair. A month before, DeAndre Arnold, a senior in Mont Belvieu, Texas, was suspended and banned from attending his high school graduation because of his dreadlocks. 

In September 2019, a school in North London reversed its decision to ban cornrows and knotted braids after receiving widespread backlash. In 2018, high school wrestler, Andrew Johnson had his dreadlocks forcibly cut by a referee in order to not forfeit his match. In 2017, Brittany Noble, a news anchor in Mississippi claims she was fired after being told her natural hair was “unprofessional” by her employer.

And these are just the ones that made the news, a few instances of the widespread, global discrimination against black people for wearing their hair in natural styles. While in the UK, the 2010 Equality Act protects against racial discrimination, hair is never explicitly mentioned creating a grey area that allows these prejudices to continue. 

To cover similar gaps in US law, the states of California, New York, and New Jersey have all recently passed legislation to specifically protect natural black hairstyles from being discriminated against. Called The CROWN Act, this legislation updated the definition of race used in law to also include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” This prohibits the enforcement of grooming policies in schools and the workplace that discriminate against hair types including bans on afros, dreadlocks, cornrows, braids and other traditionally black hairstyles.

It is particularly important that students are protected from racist grooming policies at school. According to Just For Kids Law, there has been a rise in the number of children being permanently excluded from school in the last few years and this can have serious consequences on their progress. “These children often end up struggling to access the education they need to progress in their lives, and many end up stuck in Pupil Referral Units,” the group state. “These lack the educational standards of mainstream schools, and children there often fall prey to criminal exploitation and get funnelled into a life of crime.’

To combat this and hoping to implement similar amendments as in the US in the UK is Emma Dabiri. The SOAS teaching fellow and author of Don’t Touch My Hair recently started a petition to amend the UK Equality Act to include hair. 

Here, we speak to Dabiri to find out why she’s taking matters into her own hands and what you can do to help.

What was the catalyst for starting the petition?

Emma Dabiri: One story too many about the way in which black and mixed children are being penalised by policies that cry neutrality but are categorically and inherently biased. The excuse is often that the rules are applied evenly to everybody so they’re not discriminatory. But that’s not the case. They are rules created by white people for white people. They are designed according to a standard that suits the characteristics of European textured hair. 

The phrase that many of the schools use about ‘tied back’ hair, for instance, is so culturally loaded. My hair doesn’t just tie back. If I was going to tie my hair back in a way deemed neat, I would have to straighten it first, or apply a lot of gel and styling products and scrape it back. It’s the equivalent of telling a European person, ‘Just wear your hair in an afro, just wear your hair in cornrows, just wear it in twist outs.’ Also, all the nonsense about nothing shorter than grade two haircuts and the wilful ignorance about the difference between the appearance of a grade two on Caucasian hair in contrast to Afro hair.

Why is it so important for Afro hair to be legally protected?

Emma Dabiri: The Equality Act of 2010 recognises that people need to be legally protected from racial discrimination, race is a protected characteristic and within that skin colour is explicitly mentioned. However, hair texture remains as much a signifier of African heritage as skin colour, and hair discrimination is a specifically anti-black form of racism which needs to be identified by law.

In addition to shaming children for being of African descent and reinforcing the centuries-old narrative that our hair is something to be ashamed of, excluding children from school can have other serious repercussions. 

How can people help beyond the petition? What more can be done?

Emma Dabiri: We’re collecting stories around this type of discrimination, particularly school exclusions. The more awareness we have of the frequency that this is happening, the stronger the case we can build. Also, anyone with a relevant skillset that wants to get involved, be that from a legal background with experience of this kind of campaign to a platform they could use to amplify this, holler!

What are the difficulties around getting legislation passed? 

Emma Dabiri: A petition is good for raising awareness but the petition itself is only one cog in a wheel. It takes a lot of work to build a campaign to change legislation. Working with lawyers, the support of MPs, a media campaign, it’s a lot!

What change do you hope it will bring? Do you feel optimistic?

Emma Dabiri: My intention is that the biased policing of black hair will be recognised as the discriminatory practice that it is and made illegal. Do I feel optimistic? It’s really really shocking that is something that needs to be fought for in 2020 so given that reality, it’s kind of hard to feel optimistic, but a lot of people are galvanised, now’s really the time to make the change that is desperately needed.

Sign the petition here.