Hair and social inclusivity
It was my manager who asked. They said my thick and frizzy afro hair had to change. It was “dishevelled” and “untidy”.
I was caught by surprise. Prior to this conversation with this new manager, I’d been able to wear my hair in its natural state for years at this particular workplace. It was never a problem.
As a broadcast journalist, complying to guidelines about on-camera appearance isn’t uncommon. In fact, other colleagues of mine were also asked at the time to make changes to their appearance.
However, as the only black African, I felt the changes I was being asked to make were about my identity.
I felt it was an attack on my African heritage and that the only way I could have any career opportunities was if my appearance was more white and less “African”.
I was being asked to drastically alter the way my hair looked. I had no choice but to comply, even though I felt it was wrong.
I was asked to consult a white stylist about how best to “fix” my afro hair. Fearing some form of retribution, I spent that weekend chemically straightening my hair. I removed any form of kink or curl pattern. When I returned to work that Monday, the manager was complimentary of my new “straight” look.
Maintaining this new look cost me $100 more a week on average. It also took me an hour longer every morning to get ready. It resulted in my hair falling out from the damage the chemicals and heat were doing.
After a few weeks, I decided I would “weave” my hair, fearful that my dead and shedding hair would not pass my manager’s test.
The process of weaving hair involves fully or partially cornrowing the head and stitched-through hair extensions. It is expensive because the extensions are usually human hair of different textures and, depending on the length and the size of your head, it can cost thousands of dollars.
Months later, I ended up shaving my hair off. I was tired of spending so much money maintaining a hairstyle that had damaged my hair beyond recognition.
In a tweet that went viral last year, student Bonnie Kamona posted a side-by-side comparison of a Google image search of professional hairstyles for work versus unprofessional hairstyles.
The images of “unprofessional” hair featured black women with afros and braids.
By comparison, “professional” hair images featured mostly white women with straight hair. But it also featured white women with braided updos.
Braids are another uniquely black hairstyle.
In their book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps write: “In 15th century Africa, hair was loved and adorned, and it was so significant because hair indicated your social status, what family you belonged to, even your profession.”
When Africans were sold as slaves by the 18th century, black hairstyles took on different meanings. In America, for example, the hairstyle a black woman wore symbolised the type of labour she was forced to do. “Field slaves” often covered their hair with a headscarf, while “house slaves” wore wigs like their slave owners.
Byrd and Tharps argue that it was during slavery the concept of “good” and “bad” hair was born.
“Good hair was thought of as long and lacking in kink, tight curls, and frizz. And the straighter the better,” they write. “Bad hair was the antithesis, namely African hair in its purest form.”
Having hair that was similar to white European hair also meant for many slaves an opportunity for a better life with better access to food, education and, potentially, freedom.
Sadly, much of this is still relevant.
A study released earlier this year by the United States-based Perception Institute – which works to find solutions to reduce bias and discrimination – found black women wearing natural hairstyles had political and social implications.
The “Good Hair” study found that regardless of gender or race, the majority of people hold a bias towards black women and their hair.
It also found that black women experience more anxiety related to their hair and greater social and financial burden of hair maintenance than white women.
Aside from forcing black people to conform to Western ideals of beauty, implementing these policies is costly. In Australia, few hairdressers know how to treat and manage black hair. I can’t walk into any hairdresser and have a wash and get a blow-dry. The times I have foolishly attempted this, I’ve left looking like I stuck my fingers in an electric socket.
And if you happen to stumble upon someone who knows what to do with black hair, chances are they aren’t centrally located and it’s a costly enterprise.
This is one reason many black African Australians choose to braid their hair. It lasts longer, is easier to manage, and is more affordable.
In the past few weeks, children in Australia have been publicly sharing their stories of similar experiences.
At least three schools in Victoria have told black African students to change their hairstyles.
In one incident, at Melbourne’s Bentleigh Secondary College, 16-year-old twins, Tahbisa and Grace, were asked to unbraid their hair. The girls, who are of South Sudanese heritage, said the school was attacking their African identity and refused to remove the braids.
Grace said: “It’s not a problem and it doesn’t affect our education. They are asking us to look like everyone else.”
In Mildura, a high school student faced the prospect of being expelled because his dreadlocks went against the uniform policy. The Sunraysia Daily reported that 14-year-old Caleb Ernst, whose father is Nigerian, had no plans to cut the hairstyle that he has maintained to connect with his cultural heritage. Caleb braided his afro hair because it was difficult to maintain in any other style.
Regulations and dress codes are a necessity in schools and workplaces. However, few take into account how some of these rules apply to students who aren’t white. Policies are implemented with the expectation that all children’s hair looks a certain way when the reality is, for children of black African heritage, their hair grows differently to white students. The people who make these decisions happen to be white.
Some of the cases reported publicly have been referred to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Commissioner Kristen Hilton told The Age that while the law allows for schools to set “reasonable standards of dress, schools must balance this with their obligations under law not to discriminate on the basis of race or physical features”.
This is not just about hair. These school policies are steeped in racist ideas. Banning these hairstyles is banning the very thing that makes these children black. It is erasing blackness.
These “colourblind” policies – whether conscious or not – create a structure that forces those who aren’t like the dominant group to gradually “assimilate” in order to be accepted and have access to opportunities.
The reality is, race is a functional concept. Lived experiences of whites and non-whites in this country vary based on the colour of your skin. These measures ignore the very manifestations of racial discrimination present in Australia today.
Late last year, a South African friend sent me an image of a young black girl with a big afro holding her fist high. Her defiant pose struck me. Who was the confident young black girl, and why did she feel the need to embody a stance embedded in black activism?
I would later learn that she was Zulaikha Patel. At just 13, she was able to spark nationwide protests in South Africa after her private school in the legislative capital Pretoria told her and other black students to straighten their natural black hair. After resisting the policy, the students decided to protest and were threatened by school officials with arrest.
Their apparent crime? Wanting to wear their natural hair as it grew, in its big, curly way.
Speaking to CNN, Zulaikha said she’d been told at various schools that her hair was “exotic and dirty” and had been asked several times to chemically straighten it or cut it off.
She added, “Black children all over the country are not being heard. It’s about time their cries are heard.”
Seeing a teenage girl take a stand for her identity and the right to express it as she pleased inspired me to fully embrace wearing my hair as it naturally grows and in braided hairstyles that fully reflect my heritage, of which I am very proud.
At a time when diversity is a buzzword, we must also think about actions. If we want to include non-white Australians and offer them the same opportunities as white Australians, then we must begin to accept and celebrate their differences. Real inclusion is when we are allowed to be ourselves.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2017 as "Hair trigger". Subscribe here.