‘We need to push’: hair discrimination fight moves to UK workplaces | Race

Zina Alfa vividly remembers her own experiences of hair discrimination as a child. “A teacher basically said my hair was disgusting, and that it wasn’t school policy and that I needed to take it out immediately,” recalls the 30-year-old entrepreneur and campaigner on the issue, which has been in the spotlight since a series of high-profile legal cases regarding hair discrimination.

She was “ecstatic” then on hearing of the publication on Thursday of landmark guidance by Britain’s equalities watchdog that pupils should not be stopped from wearing their hair in natural afro styles at school.

But for Alfa – whose experience prompted her to launch a hair discrimination toolkit and work with one of the UK’s biggest employers, Unilever, to counter this form of racism – progress can’t just stop at the classroom.

“It’s just the first hurdle of many for making things a bit more equal, so I’m really proud and happy that the new guidance has come out. But now I think we need to push this a bit further, and make sure that this [guidance] is included in the workplace,” she adds.

As a 12-year-old student from south London attending a predominantly white private school, Alfa found her experiences with hair discrimination at school had an impact on her perception of her hair into her adult life.

“My experience with my hair was really quite traumatic, and I developed a sense of self-hate towards my afro hair and I didn’t want to have my hair in braids until I was 25.”

Her experience was just one of many instances of hair discrimination faced by young people, predominately from an African-Caribbean background at school.

The most notable instances have resulted in legal battles, including the experiences of Ruby Williams while a 15-year-old at her school in east London, as well as those of Chikayzea Flanders while a 12-year-old at his secondary school in south London.

The new guidance, informed by the observation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that hair discrimination disproportionately affects people with afro hair or protective styles, also states that school uniform policies that ban certain hairstyles, without the possibility for exceptions to be made on racial grounds, are likely to be unlawful.

Although the guidance is limited at hair discrimination taking place in schools, there have also been calls for the publication to be extended to the workplace and other public settings.

Danson Njoka, a 36-year-old performer, says he experienced instances of hair discrimination in his current role and also within his former workplace, working in corporate finance, where his hair was described as “wild” by colleagues.

“I started growing my hair out just before I left the [corporate] world,” Njoka says. “The reason why I left is because after speaking to my grandmother about haircare practices in Kenya, it really got me thinking about why we were told we had to cut off our hair for it to be seen as professional.”

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Privacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.Njoka says that after sending in his picture, the casting agent came back saying the production has asked if he could cut his dreadlocks. Photograph: Danson Njoka/handout

Now working as a performer, Njoka says that the most recent instance of hair discrimination he faced was while auditioning for a role for a Netflix show.

“The show has reached out specifically to a group of people-of-colour performers, because they wanted more diversity on the show,” he says.

Njoka says that after sending in his picture, the agent came back saying the production has asked if he could cut his dreadlocks.

“I replied to them that it was wrong, and that they should have initially asked for people with short hair if that was what they wanted,” Njoka says. “It was offensive and it was saddening. To have to change my body in order to get a job, I don’t think that’s a barrier that white people encounter as much.”

Although there have been calls for the EHRC’s guidance to be extended beyond schools, its publication has been greatly welcomed by Ruby Williams, whose family won a legal battle against her former school after her natural afro hair was deemed inappropriate for the classroom.

“The EHRC helped me so much with my case. Without their support and funding I would’ve had to give up on fighting the policy at my school,” Williams says. “I am very relieved to know that this detailed guidance exists now. I still can’t believe what happened to me, but worse, I can’t believe some schools still think it is reasonable to police afro hair – a huge part of our racial identity.

“I urge all schools to review their policies urgently, involving pupils and families in that process. I hope that this will prevent other children from experiencing what I did.”


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