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Why schools need to change the conversation around Afro hair

Michelle De Leon sets out the everyday actions schools can take to ensure they’re inclusive – and actively challenging hair discrimination...

  • Why schools need to change the conversation around Afro hair

Recently, thousands of young people and teachers of all backgrounds across the UK joined a movement for change in the form of the Big Hair Assembly – a global livestreamed event aimed at turning negative attitudes towards Afro hair into a positive force for inclusion.

Findings from the Hair Equality Report found that school was the number one place that made children feel negatively towards their Afro hair.

Schools should be places in which young people are able to learn, grow and explore the world, but too often they will be told that their Afro hair is ‘unacceptable’. The Hair Equality Report goes on to note that one in six children with Afro hair report having bad experiences in UK schools, and that there’s been a 67% rise in anti-Afro hair policies.

Ignorance within education towards Afro hair has damaging outcomes for children and young people. It can give rise to struggles that result in conflict and punishments at school, and even potentially lead to lifelong identity problems.

The Natural Hair Movement

The Natural Hair Movement can easily be featured in curriculum-aligned discussions at school. This is a global movement centred on inclusion and diversity, which rejects Western beauty standards and seeks to reclaim their Afro hair.

Matters of inclusion concerning Afro hair can be explored in a variety of subjects, including economics, business, history, biology and sociology. A biology lesson, for example, could help explain the uniqueness of Afro hair. Instead of textured hair being treated as a ‘problem’ within school, it could be explored as a marvel of science that defies gravity! Positive approaches like these could have far reaching potential, perhaps encouraging more Black pupils and future Black teachers into STEM.

Schools can also seek to improve the visibility of Afro-textured role models – important from pre-school onwards for boosting confidence and aspirations. Efforts at racial inclusion can be made more inspiring by extending the resources you use to include books, images and film. Can a child with Afro hair see their future on your school walls?

Negative terms

Learners are naturally taught the importance of the English language from a young age, so that by the time they reach secondary school, they’ll be acutely aware of words that have been used in a derogatory way against Afro hair.

There is a need for some headteachers to re-evaluate and remove offensive or negative terms used within hair policies or directed towards pupils. Labels that many pupils have heard about their hair include, ‘aggressive’, ‘extreme’, ‘messy’, ‘a gang hairstyle’, ‘just a fashion trend’, ‘inappropriate’ and ‘not suitable for the workplace’. More training around the Equality Act could prevent potential discrimination of this type.

There are a growing number of academic reports (https://www.worldafroday.com/research-and-understanding) that provide evidence of race-based hair discrimination, which needs to be tackled.

Happily, many UK teachers have embraced the opportunity to change and learn more about Afro hair, alongside more than 192,000 children and young people from 11 countries, during this year’s Little and Big Hair Assembly events.

Taking action

During this year’s Black History Month, the World Afro Day organisation hosted a panel for Ofsted that included young people aged between 12 and 17 years, plus headteacher Paddy Russell, who opted to removed all hair restrictions from his school. His thoughts on the available evidence relating to strict hairstyle rules within school can be heard in a recent episode of the Turning Heads & Teachers podcast.

If we want to tackle the worrying attainment gap and rising levels of racism with schools, we need teachers to take action – mirroring the way that so many of their learners feel about injustice.

The public service equality duty – to eliminate discrimination and foster good relations between people – really matters. A quote we heard this year from one young boy (without Afro hair) sums this up beautifully: “World Afro Day made me feel inspired by Afro hair, because it is unique and it’s just very pretty, and I don’t want anyone with Afro hair to feel discriminated against.”

Teachers can help the next generation feel positive about Afro hair by making Afro hair part of their lessons, by promoting Afro role models and by joining our Big Hair Assembly. Black History Month offers us the opportunity to shine a light on race inequalities – but the rest of the year offers us the chance to take action.

Michelle De Leon is the founder and CEO of World Afro Day; for more information, visit worldafroday.com or follow @worldafroday

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