Home / Beauty Tips / New York is right to ban hair discrimination. Now how about the UK? | Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

New York is right to ban hair discrimination. Now how about the UK? | Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

New York City’s new legal guidance on discrimination based on hairstyle is a thing of beauty. It points out that “there is a widespread and fundamentally racist belief that black hairstyles are not suited for formal settings, and may be unhygienic, messy, disruptive, or unkempt”, and deems natural hair textures that are tightly coiled or tightly curled, and black hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, braids, fades, and afros, a protected racial characteristic. This means that is now illegal to target black people based on their hair or hairstyle at work, school or in any public place – and if you do, you may get fined.

In a country where our elected representatives think it’s OK to describe ethnic minorities as having a “funny tinge” on live television, it appears that British conversations around the nature of hair texture and hairstyle discrimination, and how they intersect with race, are rudimentary at best. But now is the perfect time to consider the experiences of those of us living in Britain with kinky-coily hair, and whether Britain should introduce similar laws.

As a mixed-race black person with tightly coiled hair, I have long been aware that, aside from skin tone, hair texture is arguably the biggest signifier of race, and that having my type of hair has left me open to some difficult life experiences. The “coarser” and more tightly curled your hair is, the more unacceptable it becomes, and hair texture discrimination, like colourism, is a very real occurrence. Beyond that, black hair, as outlined in Emma Dabiri’s forthcoming book Don’t Touch My Hair, has been an intrinsic part of black identity and culture for centuries.

Growing up, hairdressers always looked on my hair texture with surprise and sometimes distaste. When my mum decided to give me locs when I was eight, after getting fed up with trying to comb my hair while I cried, my peers told me I looked like a boy and I was asked intrusive questions about how often I washed them. The one time I awkwardly went with my friend to her white hairdresser – who she thought might magically be able to make my hair look like hers – I was told that they didn’t do my texture. This is such a common occurrence for black women in the UK, who are also often charged a premium by high-street hairdressers who do deign to touch our curls, that Stylist magazine ran a hair equality campaign to challenge it in 2017.

US high school wrestler made to cut dreadlocks or face forfeit – video

Watching the video last year of a high-school wrestler in New Jersey being forced to cut off his locs before competing felt like a gut punch – in part because of the way he seemed to accept it. I remember the day my dreadlocks were cut off – I was ecstatic until I looked in the mirror and saw the reality of my hair texture underneath and realised I still wasn’t any closer to being accepted as “normal”. The next time I went to the hairdressers I had my hair chemically straightened, and it was only in 2018, 12 years later, that I saw my natural hair texture again.

As I watched the wrestler, Andrew Johnson, I wondered if one reason why he complied with their racist policy – as well as effectively being forced to if he wanted to compete – was that deep down, he knew that ridding himself of his dreadlocks was a step away from unwarranted discrimination.

These small, personal incidents can feed into a wider, systemic problem that leaves black people open for humiliation. At the moment, most black British women (and some men, though they’re often protected by shorter hairstyles and, uh, patriarchy) accept that at some point they will experience ignorance, a rogue hand plopping into their coif and perhaps even face being told by a potential employer that they would need to chemically straighten their hair to get a job. And while changing the law may not prevent hair-related racism altogether, emulating New York City’s approach would undoubtedly be a good start, particularly as the natural hair movement becomes more mainstream.

In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile examples of hair discrimination in British schools. In January, a five-year-old boy was banned from his school playground because of what his school deemed to be an “extreme” haircut. His mum pointed out that the school’s “hair policy lacks cultural awareness as a grade two haircut is not fair for Josiah’s type of hair and others from different racial backgrounds”. Last September, a 12-year-old boy was banned from a west London school because he wore his hair in dreadlocks, until public pressure forced them to overturn the ruling, and a similar incident occurred with a 14-year-old girl in Kent in 2016, who had to fight her school to be allowed to wear her hair in box braids.

All three of these children would have been protected under the new legal guidelines from New York City. Black people in the UK deserve to be safeguarded too.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is deputy editor at gal-dem.com

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