February 20, 2017 0 Comments Articles, Writing

Banning Dreadlocks is not racist…it’s ignorant!

Black hair and the bigger issue of cultural diversity

The decision last year by the U.S. Circuit Appeals Court to uphold an employer’s ban on dreadlocks had the Internet in uproar. The pitch forks were out and the cries of racism rang loud and clear but in this instance I decided to leave my card very firmly in the deck. I’m sure this opinion is probably going to make me really unpopular but I don’t think this is just a simple issue of racism. I think the real issue at play is the ongoing and self perpetuating cycle of cultural ignorance brought about by the lack of true cultural diversity within ‘western’ society. Ignorance and even prejudice on its own does not necessarily constitute racism.

From a legal perspective, I fully understand and even appreciate why the court made their decision. As far as the law is concerned, dreadlocks are a hairstyle and thus a choice, not an immutable characteristic such as race or gender. Yes this choice is heavily linked to a specific culture and race, but it is not inherent to it and based on the current definition of race, cannot be protected as such. I agree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s argument that ‘race is a social construct not solely defined by traits that can’t be changed’ and that a ‘hairstyle can be a determinant of racial identity.’ And if the employee had been wearing a free flowing afro, then hell yes my pitchfork would have been waving right along with all the others. Dreadlocks however, are not unique to black culture though they are most commonly associated with Rastafarianism and in turn black people. Rope like matted hair has been observed in many cultures from all over the world – from Africa, India and ancient Greece to the Aztecs, Mongolians and even an early Jewish sect.

“Holy Men” portrait series by Joey L.

Mongolian shaman, c. 1909

The reason why I don’t think this case was simply an issue of race or racism is that the employee had already been offered the job and it was only rescinded after she refused to change her hairstyle. I’ve tried to think about the various reasons why the employer in the case might have had a problem with the dreadlocks in the first place. I can only assume that it had something to do with some pre-conceived and probably prejudiced ideas about dreadlocks either being a sign of uncleanliness or looking unprofessional – once again cultural ignorance. Dreadlocks actually have to be kept very clean as the natural oils produced by the scalp could cause the hair to untangle. Dreadlocks can also be professionally styled and maintained so neatness is a non issue. There is clearly a culture clash at play and sadly it’s not just dreadlocks that can trigger this sort of reaction. Black women all over the western world continue to deal with discrimination based on their hairstyle choices and a Western culture that stigmatises it as being too ‘ethnic’ or unprofessional.

What this case raises is the bigger issue of what Western society considers normal or acceptable and how those views are inherently biased against certain races and cultures. It’s the reason why students in South Africa had to protest against a school ban on braids. It’s why a primary school in the UK banned braids and other similar styles as being ‘extreme’. As a black woman I know that braids, twists and even dreadlocks are a perfectly normal and often desirable way to style black hair. But to Western culture, it is strange and outside of the norm and this is the real problem.

We have to challenge the established scope of what is considered normal and acceptable. This begins at the point in which we as human beings start to understand the world around us and our place within it. It goes back to how as children we learn about the world. From the toys we play with, to the TV programs we watch and most importantly the books we read. In an interview with the Book Trust, author, Malaika Rose Stanley described diversity in literature as:

“Recognising, accepting and valuing difference. In children’s and young adult literature this means the inclusion of positive characters and stories that represent, reflect, celebrate – and question – the lives of everybody – not just the dominant, majority population.”

If a child grows up reading books, which not only reflect but also celebrate difference, then that becomes the norm for that child. We need more books that do this and in order for that to happen, we need to create the opportunities for more diverse writers to be published. In the same interview, former Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman said this about the need for diverse books:

“Diversity in literature fosters knowledge and understanding of others outside our own sphere of experience. It is only through knowledge and empathy of how others live that we can attempt to communicate and connect with each other.”

It’s not just books of course, this need for diversity covers the wide and various ways we as human beings learn and absorb information. If we want the employers of tomorrow to celebrate difference, then we need to ensure that the children of today do so also.