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Celebrating Black History Month - Don’t Touch My Hair!

Author
Delisa Abimbola

Trainee

London

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05 October 2022

To mark Black History Month, I wanted to share a sensitive topic for me as a woman of Afro-Caribbean origin.

Hair. I still remember when I was told for the first time that my hair was “not good”. I had just had it relaxed in an attempt to transform my kinky and coarse hair type to something more manageable. It was a disaster, as the years of wearing hair extensions (weaves) were taking their toll. 

Hair discrimination is a real thing

Believe it or not, hair discrimination is a thing, particularly for those with Afro hair. California was the first US State to introduce a law to protect against discrimination on the grounds of race-based hairstyles in workplaces and schools . The Crown Act (which stands for ‘Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair’) gives statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, dreadlocks twists, bonnets and knots.  The law (or similar legislation) has now been extended to 18 states.

The issue has not gone unnoticed in this country either. Two MPs – Kim Johnson and Wera Hobhouse – have written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make afro or textured hair linked to race a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. There has even been an employment tribunal case, Erogbogbo v Vision Express (2000) where the employer was held to have unlawfully discriminated against an individual’s hairstyle. In Erogbogbo, the tribunal ruled that it was unlawful for a black African employee to lose her job for wearing her natural “afro” at work.

Hair discrimination is a serious concern for those in the Afro-Caribbean community. Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home for wearing hairstyles inherent to their culture according to a survey done by Glamour magazine. 

What can employers do to prevent hair discrimination? 

The starting point for employers is to educate the decision-makers and the workforce on hair discrimination as part of their dignity at work training. The Halo Collective has a wealth of resources to help educate, and includes a Code which workplaces can sign up to. PLCs, financial institutions, law firms and many other workplaces have already signed up to the Code.

There are a number of good practice steps which an employer can take to make for a more inclusive workplace, including:

  • Think carefully about blanket bans of hairstyles, which are linked to culture and race 
  • Training is key to educating the workforce as it helps everyone to appreciate that:
    • Touching or asking to touch anyone’s hair is inappropriate
    • Making jokes when an individual changes hairstyle is to single out the person as “other” and undermines valuing difference
    • Hair type when linked to culture or race should not be equated with unprofessionalism.

It may come as a surprise to learn that it is estimated that Black British women spend around £168 million a year on “palatable” hairstyles for work. No one should feel as though they cannot achieve success in a workplace without relaxers, extensions or braids just to ensure they “fit in”. 

Bringing your authentic self to work includes being able to wear black Afro Caribbean styles without inappropriate restriction, judgement or questioning professionalism.

 

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