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Ruby Williams
Courtesy of Ruby Williams

Ruby Williams is taking on institutional racism and hair discrimination

‘One person said their brother had to sit outside the headteacher’s office, waiting for his hair to grow’

When you’re at school, there’s plenty of things to worry about. Homework, exams, forgetting your calculator before exams, the intricate, mercurial, sometimes deadly politics of teenage social groups. Being suspended because of your hair should not be one of them. 

Black people face constant, widespread discrimination and policing for wearing their hair in natural styles. Last week, Jamaica’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of a school’s decision to demand that a seven-year-old student cut her dreadlocks to attend classes. In the US, DeAndre Arnold, a senior in Mont Belvieu, Texas, was suspended and banned from attending his high school graduation because of his dreadlocks while in 2018, high school wrestler Andrew Johnson had his dreadlocks forcibly cut by a referee in order to not forfeit his match. 

In the UK, five-year-old Josiah Sharpe was excluded from playtime and then banned from school because of his fade hairstyle which the school considered too “extreme,” while Chikayzea Flanders was told on his first day at Fulham Boys school that his dreadlocks had to be cut off or he would face suspension. Tyrese Francis was banned from lessons and put in isolation at Mossbourne Victoria Park Academy because his fade was deemed inappropriate.

Earlier this year, London student Ruby Williams was awarded an £8,500 settlement in compensation for being repeatedly sent home from the Urswick School over the course of two years because of her Afro hair. The news received national attention, making headlines around the country with figures like author Emma Dabiri coming out in support of Williams, an experience, she says, that was incredibly affirming. “It was only when I received the overwhelming support from the public that I knew the school was truly in the wrong,” says Williams. “It had been so confusing before but the public outrage was the confirmation I needed that fighting it was the right thing to do.”

Six months later and Williams has been hard at work. Determined that what happened to her won’t befall other students, she’s been volunteering with No More Exclusions, an abolitionist coalition on a mission to end race-disparities in school exclusions; sharing her experiences for training new teachers through the National Education Union; and working with Hackney council to create borough-wide guidance on hair policies in school. All while getting her A-Levels. And moonlighting as a judge for the Top Ten Model Competition’s celebration of World Afro Day. And qualifying as a make-up artist. At just 18 years old, she’s already shown incredible strength, grit, and determination.

“I was so hurt by my school for what they did, how they ignored everyone and how they dragged it all out, which made it so hard for me and my family,” she says. “I just wanted it all to stop but I knew if I gave up then they could do it to another pupil who looked like me and that would make me feel worse so I was determined to see it through.”

“It has been very full-on since February but I have wanted to volunteer and take part in lots of things to raise awareness of this issue. I have to believe that this negative experience will have a positive impact for others in the future, otherwise all of this pain was for nothing.”

We spoke to Ruby to hear all about what she’s been up to.

You’ve been working with Hackney council to create borough-wide guidance on hair in school. Can you tell us a bit more about that? What kind of guidelines are you hoping to introduce?

Ruby Williams: Hackney is one of the most multicultural places in the UK so for this to happen here shocked everyone and the council have been determined to turn that negative into a positive. I know that Hackney tried to help from the first week I had issues but because the school is a Church of England school, there was very little they could do. They have supported throughout and helped plan next steps.

They invited us to be part of developing guidelines for Hackney schools which will be circulated next academic year I believe and will assist schools in developing policies on how hair is worn that are more inclusive and flexible in their approach. They are not groundbreaking but more about encouraging schools to think about how their rules might impact certain pupils more than others. Reminding schools about the Equality Act 2010 and what their duties of care are. 

What have you learnt from working on the guidelines?

Ruby Williams: During the process of developing the policy I have listened to other people who have had horrible experiences too. I remember one person who said their brother had to sit outside the headteacher’s office, waiting for his hair to grow. I have also been encouraged by other people, like one teacher said their schools had abolished all their hair rules altogether after listening to their pupils.

My parents have set up a support group with other families who have faced the same thing and they come from all over the UK. They are encouraging each other and hopefully those local areas will take it seriously too. I think it needs to be challenged one pupil at a time.

You’ve also been volunteering with No More Exclusions and sharing your experience for training for new teachers through NEU. Why is this important to you?

Ruby Williams: It was through a teacher involved with NME that I presented to a group of new teachers and professionals. The NEU are rolling out the ‘Anti-Racist Charter’ and they asked me to share my lived experience. It was very daunting at first to talk to all these strangers, on zoom, but they soon all started making comments and I realised they all understood what I was saying and wanted to learn from what I had been through.

Those teachers may end up in leadership roles and hopefully my story will be something they remember. I had teachers who were secretly supporting me, whispering in my ear and some even did speak out on my behalf but were ignored. They could have done more. If all the teachers had joined together and said ‘this isn’t fair’ then maybe my story would be very different. I had three happy years there but now all I remember is the discrimination and victimisation I faced in year 10 and 11. Ultimately, they all failed me and just watched me suffer. I want teachers to have the courage to speak up when pupils are being treated unfairly, they should be our advocates, our protectors. Why are you becoming a teacher if you let pupils suffer like that?

How has your relationship with your hair evolved over the years?

Ruby Williams: I didn’t really notice my hair as a younger child but when I got to be about nine or 10, I started to feel envious of straight flowing hair and I begged my mum to straighten it for me. My dad is a Rastafarian so relaxer was not going to be an option whilst I was a child but I managed to persuade them to let me buy straighteners. I liked swishing my hair around and having hair like other people around me. 

Then it all went wrong and my hair started breaking off. In year eight I began having my hair in its natural state and trying to nurse it back to health. I had been wearing my hair in an Afro or puffs for two years but all of a sudden it became an issue for the school. I started having Ghana braids and extensions more to try to get them to leave me alone about my hair. I must have done it too often as I started getting bald patches and a receding hairline. I have a good relationship with my hair and somehow did even throughout the ordeal, I knew it was the rule that was wrong, not my hair. 

How would you describe the relationship now? 

Ruby Williams: When the story first came out earlier this year it did give me a boost of confidence about my hair as so many people were complimenting it. During lockdown my hair has spent most of its time in protective cane-rows so I have experienced a lot of growth. I like to do different things with my hair and I believe in choice and that black and mixed-race people should not be judged for the choices we make about our hair. I might have it out in its natural state, or get extensions or wear a wig if I feel like it. I have the right to choose how I want to wear my hair day to day. If someone feels more comfortable with relaxing their hair, go for it. We need to start celebrating each other and not judging people. 

How does representation of Black hair impact on a wider scale?

Ruby Williams: In all aspects of life, it is important to see yourself represented. It breaks my heart when I hear young black girls say they want ‘princess hair’ and want to look like Elsa from Frozen. It happens from such a young age; the slow brainwashing of what beauty looks like. Those European standards of beauty seep into our brains and our own identities are pushed into the background. Representation changes that by simply showing diversity. All of these different individuals can be beautiful or handsome in their own way, according to their own cultural and genetic make-up. 

Hair is an obvious and visible way we can show diversity but we need to challenge colourism too and make sure everyone truly feels equal. There is such diversity between black and mixed-race communities; from our hair textures, to our skin, to our body shape, to our languages and accents, to our heritage, to our faiths etc. I feel frustrated when one person is asked to speak on behalf of an entire race. We can only speak of our own lived experience and we must all look out for each other to ensure representation is truly happening and not just tokenism or ‘safe’ options. 

In the last couples of months there has been a real focus on systemic racism globally with the Black Lives Matter protests. Do you think this will have a positive effect on the changes you are hoping to help implement around hair policies?  

Ruby Williams: To go from this personal experience of hair discrimination, to a pandemic, to the emotional impact of Black Lives Matter has been a lot in 2020! Strangely BLM helped me to have hope again. I saw so many people speaking out about the discrimination they had faced and I felt I was part of something bigger. Everyone feels the same, we are equal, our lives matter, so leave us alone!

There are people who might think ‘but it's only hair’. I would say that hair discrimination is a symptom of a bigger issue. When we are told our hair is unacceptable what we hear is that WE are unacceptable. When we are told that our hair needs taming, what we hear is that WE need taming. Institutional racism is real and everywhere and as an 18-year-old I now know I will be battling with it forever, a harsh lesson that my school taught me. I don’t pretend to know the answers to all the systematic racism that exists but I do know the answer to hair discrimination and I think everybody else does too. BLM has made this fight easier because all institutions are now scrambling around, reading their policies to check they’re not secretly racist! I think this issue will be an easy one to resolve compared to most. Black Lives Matter and so does our hair, our bodies, our education, our health etc. I did go on a couple of marches as I felt I wanted to be part of this significant time in our history. I think change will happen; I have hope.

What are your plans for the future? 

Ruby Williams: This experience has now overshadowed both my GCSEs and now my A-Levels! I know the stress has impacted on my school work but I’ve still tried my best. Now I have to wait for my grades to see if I get into Manchester or not (editor’s note: Ruby was accepted into Manchester!). I just hope that university will be the fresh start I need and I can finally get on with my life. One thing that has kept me positive these last few years is my love of make-up and I’m now a qualified make-up artist. I would love to work as a make-up artist eventually, or if not to be involved in the marketing of make-up, especially make-up for people who are black or other ethnic minority groups.