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Hair discrimination in the workplace

Hair discrimination is something we have all experienced, whether it's overt or subtle. Every black person I know has either at some point been told they look better with straight hair, or has at some point wanted straight hair in order to fit in. We've all been told our hair is too messy, too frizzy, too unkempt. The rules for us seem different to those for white people. It can be a tricky subject, when most racism that's talked about is focused on skin colour. But hair discrimination does just as much harm. It knocks our confidence, affects our education and careers. Here's what a trainee barrister has said about her experiences in the law world:

I've experienced hair discrimination my whole life. One experience was during law school though. I was attending a diversity event, with a panel. One barrister on the panel told me that if I wanted to be a barrister I'd have to straighten my hair. I wasn't shocked by what they said - if anything I was expecting to hear it, and definitely to hear it more than I have. Many black barristers are told that afro hair isn't an acceptable style. But I was shocked by who said it - a black female barrister. She felt that she wasn't able to get to her position with natural hair. And she said this with such confidence, like it wasn't something awful, just another thing to deal with in the world of work.

However, I'm never straightening my hair for work on principle now. Conforming to 'get there' is as worthless as not being there in the first place, and I wouldn't want to work for someone who couldn't accept me for me. Nevertheless my hair is something I have to think about for professional situations. I think about whether wearing braids is appropriate, and often wear my hair up in 'professional' situations. Part of that is from a lifetime of being told that my hair is too big or conspicuous or in the way. As well as growing up in an environment where protective styles for my hair aren't the norm. But as to wearing my hair up, some of it's just convenience - it gets hot, it does get in my way and distracts me... I think most women in professional settings wear their hair up if it's long.

Unfortunately we will probably continue to have these sorts of experiences throughout our lives, that will add to the layers of glazing of our very own glass ceiling. Under the Equality Act, discrimination based on someone's personal characteristics is against the law, so theoretically calling people out should be easy. But no one's going to prison or getting a fine for telling you to tie your hair back. So these are more sackable offences. Even so, it's hard to report someone in the world of work when these attitudes are institution wide, and when the boss is not black. Making a change through unity is therefore crucial. But there is clearly a very important message here: don't change your hair to conform.

#hairdiscrimination #afrohair #lawcareers

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