School rules or social engineering? Hairstyles, identity and discrimination.
This week a US school has hit the headlines for refusing to allow Faith Fennidy, a young black girl, to attend with her hair up in braids. Given that her chosen style was conventional, tidy and not posing any sort of safety risk in lessons, it is unsurprising that this decision met with bafflement and anger. The school argued that because the plaits in question were done using hair extensions, they were ‘unnatural’ and violated the uniform policy. The principal was unsympathetic to the point made by the family of the eleven year old pupil, that for many black people, this kind of hair-style is a way to stay smart and comfortable.
It is very hard to defend the position of the school on any level. A total ban on hair-extensions undeniably affects black pupils more than white pupils, and there are both practical and cultural reasons for their popularity amongst the former group. The facts of this affair are very similar to those of the English case G v St Gregory’s Catholic Science College, where corn-rows were banned for boys. Again, although all students were forbidden from adopting the relevant style, in practice it had a disproportionate impact on black pupils, and G challenged it on this basis. To make matters worse, the school was not willing to take into account the cultural importance of corn-rows for the family involved in the dispute, nor the evidence that wearing his hair in this way was part of his ethnic identity. Quite correctly, the court found that the policy of the school to be indirectly discriminatory.
These disputes highlight just how key cultural beliefs and practices are in relation to both individual and community identity. Just because a mode of dress or hairstyle does not have religious connotations, it does not mean that it should be lightly dismissed as a matter of personal preference. In many cases, these issues go to the heart of a person’s sense of self, and connectedness with family and community. Of course, it is in the nature of children and teenagers to push boundaries, and educational establishments often have good reasons to impose rules on dress and personal grooming. And in fairness, this does not only apply to young people, as left to their own devices adults do not always make ideal choices either, which is why workplaces also have to implement and police dress and safety codes. For instance, nobody of any age should have long hair loose around naked flames or moving machinery. Some rules are made for good, practical reasons. However, where rules are laid down simply to maintain what are considered to be desirable social norms, great care has to be taken to analyse whose norms are being upheld and for what purpose.
If pupils are receiving the message that this school wants its pupils to look like respectable members of society, and that means not adopting styles which are common amongst black people, what is that saying to them? What will that narrative do to the perceptions of students of all ethnicities? Exactly the same point could (and should) be made in relation to social class. If certain fashion choices are banned, when they are common in some subcultures, there is a real risk of conveying the idea to children from those backgrounds that they are somehow lesser, or that they need to change their tastes and identity in order to become high academic or professional achievers. In one sense the issue with class is even more sensitive, as it is not a protected characteristic in UK law, which makes it harder for victims of class-discrimination to challenge prejudice.
Whilst the difficulties faced by schools in preparing young people for their future lives as adult citizens should not be underestimated, and agreeing on uniform policy is a minefield, disputes like the one faced by Faith Fennidy are still very disappointing in the twenty-first century. No child should go into school being made to feel that their cultural identity is less valid, or less worth owning and celebrating than that of anyone else.
US school faces backlash after student’s ‘unnatural hair’ criticised (BBC News 23/8/18)
The corn-row row (New Law Journal 5/8/11)