Why I felt compelled to straighten my natural curls at Cardiff University

‘I have spent hours straightening my hair’

One of the many ways that we can see racism manifesting itself in British society today is through policing of hair. As women of colour, attitudes to the hair on our heads as well as the hair on our bodies have both overt and veiled racist implications. My own relationship with my hair reflects this reality.

I set out to explain the prevalence of hair discrimination in today’s society, including the incidents that have occurred at Cardiff University, in sport, education and everyday life.

My experience with hair politics

While I am the first to recognise my privilege (I have type 3a hair), I have still had a very strained relationship with it over the years. Ever since secondary school I have spent hours straightening my hair, and during my first year at Cardiff University I was rarely seen with my natural curls.

The desire my teenage self felt to straighten my hair came from external influences and a want to feel more comfortable in an environment that was white-dominated.  This was only perpetuated when I came to Cardiff University and found myself the sole Black girl on my small course.

How prevalent is hair discrimination in education?

In her 2019 book ‘Don’t Touch My hair’, Emma Dabiri, Irish-Nigerian academic, author and broadcaster, addresses many of the issues associated with the discrimination of the Black community in education. This is evident through Ruby Williams’ experience with her school in East London where she was sent home repeatedly because her hair was deemed ‘too big’. She eventually took legal action and has since received an out of court settlement of £8,500. This highlights that hair plays a big part in racial discrimination in Britain today.

Credit: Kate Williams, mother of Ruby Williams

Cardiff is not innocent from hair discrimination

In a recent interview with Vogue, Dabiri highlighted the fact that a lot of  the ‘dress codes’ that police what is appropriate for people to wear to school or work are “rules made by white people for white people”.

Credit: Instagram / @emmadabiri

In a society that favours Eurocentric features, Black hair is often seen as unprofessional, exemplified in Cardiff through certain well know institutions policies, where girls wearing their natural hair tied back into pony tails have been told to either change it or leave when turning up for a shift.

I changed my hair at Cardiff Uni to feel more comfortable

We all know that during freshers there is a lot of pressure to present our best selves. I was almost religiously straightening my hair because society had convinced me that my best self had straight hair. I am now in my third year at Cardiff and lucky enough to find myself happy and comfortable. The last two years have been a period of great  growth for me and with this I thankfully find myself straightening my hair less and less.

I’ve had people approach me on nights out to make comments on my hair. While people may think their comments are complimentary the fact that they come from a place of ignorance is undeniable.

One student told The Cardiff Tab, “I think the most annoying things is the random one or two people that touch your hair on a night out”. This student went on to explain that she feels, like me, she is granted some privileges by her hair type, and “lucky not to have experienced anything negative” because “usually those with type 4 have a harder time”.

Cardiff University Cheer asked a girl to change her hair

A mixed race member of the Cardiff University Cheer team was asked to straighten her hair only to then curl it again, with claims that this would make it neater. It angers me greatly to know that people’s hair and identity is being policed at university.

Yet it is not just society’s attitude to the hair on our heads that reflects the ways that racism and other forms of discrimination manifest themselves.

Society police women’s body hair too

Female body hair has historically been policed by society. A lot of women these days are rightfully reclaiming their body and growing out their body hair. However, as the feminist artist, influencer and author, Florence Given, highlights in her book ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty‘ this is privilege that a lot of women of colour are not granted.

Credit: Instagram – @florencegiven

When you live in a body that society already considers less desirable for what ever reason, be it race, body type or gender identity, the decision to stop shaving is made even more difficult. This is because, whether we want to accept it or not, the more we fit into society’s Eurocentric beauty standards the easier life is.

Society’s attitudes toward hair in all senses must viewed along political lines, paying special attention to race. The policing of hair is evidently one of the many ways that people of colour experience discrimination in Britain today.

Feature Image: Credit @emily_haf 

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