Children up and down the country have either already started a new school year, or are preparing to head back any day.
Most schools have a uniform (or dress code) and rules around things like haircuts and piercings, to make sure their students look presentable, and that’s perfectly acceptable. But what’s not OK is hair discrimination.
“Hair discrimination is when you treat a person differently and unfairly, not because of who they are, but because they have hair that is different to European standards,” says activist Zina Alfa, who is working with Dove on the educational My Hair, My Crown campaign.
“It is usually because they have afro-textured hair. For school children, it can result in being excluded from school due to wearing your natural afro, fade, locs or braids, as well as other protective or natural hairstyles.”
If a student is excluded from school, it’s disruptive to their education, but even if the discrimination doesn’t go that far, it can still negatively affect a child during their formative years.
Alfa says: “Afro hair through the lens of society is often seen as unprofessional, unattractive, and unclean. If a child hears, sees or is made to feel that, that narrative will exist in their mind. The brain will develop to hold trauma and self-hate towards the way in which they look.”
A lack of self-confidence can lead children to be “critical of themselves and others, and deter from what is actually important. [They may be] less likely to listen to teachers due to a hostile environment. They may feel as if they do not have the support they want.”
Talk to and about teachers
“One of the ways you can safeguard your kids, is through a conversation about hair discrimination and hair itself,” says Alfa. “It’s important for children to know that although teachers are a huge influence, they are human and sometimes, teachers and schools come with their own biases.”
She recommends telling your children to “stay true to themselves, and if a teacher is being discriminatory, it’s important to speak to an adult about it”.
“Understanding the history of afro hair and showing examples of this is imperative in understanding hair discrimination,” says Alfa. She has created a series of videos on the topic that you can find on the UB Hair YouTube channel.
“Also, give examples where students spoke up for what is right, as seen with a school in Pimlico [London] where the students protested against the discrimination against the pupils of colour. The school changed their anti-afro hair policies as a result.”
When you’re styling your child’s hair, take the opportunity to bond. “Say, ‘You have amazing hair’. Tell them, ‘A lot of people might try and stop you from showing it off because they are jealous, but remember, if they do, come to me straight away and I will deal with it’,” Alfa suggests.
“Also just by making hair time fun, they will always associate hair with having a good time. You can put beads in their natural hair and use oils and cream that smell good.”
Try to use positive language and affirmations, she adds: “Instead of saying your child’s hair is coarse, nappy or kinky, start calling it delicate, beautiful and bouncy. And if they are frustrated about how long it takes to do their hair, say good things take time [the same way] pressure creates diamonds.”
It’s not just what you say to kids that matters – seeing characters and real people who look like them in magazines, books and TV can make a big difference.
Alfa says: “An array of different characters can be used as tools to explain harder topics. [Books] I Love My Hair! written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley or Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, which was made into a film, are great examples of learning to love your hair.”
Part of the Dove Self-Esteem Project curriculum, My Hair, My Crown is a tool for educators, parents and mentors to boost hair confidence in kids with coils, curls, waves and protective styles – and to build allyship in others to create a respectful and open world for natural hair.