Hair, Hair Everywhere

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In August of this year, girls in a South African school marched to protest the racism that they were experiencing in school. At the heart of the protest was the schools’ grooming code, which stated that “all hair must be brushed, tied back in a neat ponytail if long enough, and that “cornrows, natural dreadlocks, and singles/braids . . . are allowed, provided they are a maximum of 10mm in diameter.”

The students felt that this was a discrimination against their African heritage and voiced their concerns as they took to the streets. Later on the parents of the school met and the particular code has been suspended.

Image from Pinterest. Ancient Rwandese Hairstyle.

I grew up in Kenya, which was highly influenced by the Colonial British culture. While I was in primary school or high school, there was definitely a grooming code that did not permit girls to have chemically straightened hair and definitely did not permit dreadlocks or any other “ethnic hairstyles”. Afros were a ‘no-no’ and in those days growing dreadlocks was associated with violence, rebellion and suspicion.

We were never allowed to braid our hair in school; that was a luxury left for us to indulge in over school holidays. This was all accepted by society; a part of helping children get a disciplined approach towards life- following rules and regulations. As late as 2006, I know of a friend who could not graduate from a private Christian university in Kenya because he wore dreadlocks.

The 2016 Kenya is very different; the ‘ethnicity’ is back. Natural hair is suddenly all the rage with blogs, hairstylists, and even commercial companies getting on the bandwagon. There are all manner of products to make it easier to handle this curly, kinky, black hair and for those who prefer, they can get natural hair weaves, additions and extensions.

It is hard to imagine that only 10 years ago, Kenyans frowned upon those who wore dreadlocks and many people cut their locks just to get a job. People who kept short, natural hair were few and far between and were even thought of as being a bit unfashionable. Times have really changed right?

But just last week, my peaceful façade was shattered. A judge in the United States ruled that employers have the right to fire an employee for having dreadlocks. The case came to the Appeals courts when a lady filed a suit against her employer who asked her to get rid of her dreadlocks and she refused.

The employer later withdrew the offer for employment. In their ruling the judges quoted that “…racial discrimination had to be based on characteristics that didn’t change, and the hairstyle didn’t qualify as ‘immutable’.”

The contention of the case was that the lady felt that she was being racially discriminated because of her hairstyle, the court however held that hairstyles are things that can be changed and are therefore not an obvious subject of racial discrimination.

The debate is still raging on this ruling, and other aspects of it are bound to unravel. I wore dreadlocks from 2007 to 2012 before I chopped them off. I am now in the process of growing them again. I do see the sense in this ruling because employers hire employees to be the face of their company.

For example, many employers still frown upon visible tattoos or multiple visible body piercings; and rightfully so because society judges a company by the way the employee looks.

The same applies to dreadlocks; if an employer does not want to project (whatever image is projected) by dreadlock totting employees, it is within their right not to hire the employee. Remember, people of other races can also have dreadlocks, not just people of the black race.

Looping back to South Africa and Kenya, what does this mean? Is it right then for a school to set rules on grooming that specifically control the size of braids, afros, cornrows or even dreadlocks? (Most schools in Kenya still specify the hairstyles permitted during the school term). As we can see, employers in the US are within their rights not to hire a person if they have certain hairstyles (or piercings or tattoos).

I think the context is important. While in Kenya, society has opened its arms to ‘natural hairstyles’, a Kenyan employer/ head-teacher will definitely exercise their right to dismiss an employee/student or deny employment/admission.

Racial tensions in South Africa have been brewing for some time now therefore the reaction to this incident is expected. However, the question is, are the rules there for the sake of discipline or as an issue of discrimination?

Is there a chance that dialogue may be opened before people take to the streets to understand what the real bone of contention is? I will finish this with a quote from Akon and India Arie “I am not my hair, I am not my skin, I am not your expectation”.

I hope that you are more than just your hair.

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