I was in grade 10 when I returned home to my small town from a trip to Kenya to visit my sick grandmother. My 4A/3C Afro-textured hair had been neatly braided into tiny twist-braids at a local salon in Nairobi. It took a gruelling five hours and a few first-timer tears for my hair to be twisted airtight from the base of my scalp — a technique to stop the pinky-sized braids from unravelling. Finally, I was going beyond just speaking a few elementary words in Swahili to connect with my culture.
However, my fresh protective style only survived a few days in regional New South Wales before disciplinary figures at my private school sternly picked me up for having “an extreme hairstyle” that was “not acceptable.”
In my eyes, the braids complied with the uniform rulebook. They were above the collar, above the ears, neat, short and sensible. I felt defeated and now insulted, realising my cultural identity (my Afro in its natural state and its corresponding protective styles) could not be embraced without being outlawed as “extreme.”
After all, the Oxford Dictionary defines the word “extreme” as “the furthest away from the centre [of normal].”
As a 21-year-old reflecting on my school’s grooming code, I realise they made it extremely hard for students of the African diaspora to embrace their identities.
While penning this piece, 5-year-old Cook Island boy Cyrus Taniela’s Brisbane private school threatened to expel him for his long hair. It hit home that white supremacist sentiment is so rife in our society that it’s hidden in plain sight — a school dress code, for instance. Cyrus’ mum explained to a tribunal that her son was growing his hair for an upcoming traditional haircutting ceremony. Although they won their case against their school, I am deeply saddened and frustrated to hear this child has had his cultural identity challenged like this.
It made me realise my school years were spent being coerced into shaving my head — expelling signs of my Afro-textured hair — to meet subjective white standards of presentability. Imagine being told from age 13 to 18, or in Cyrus’ case, age 5, your natural hair is simply “inappropriate,” “messy,” “extreme” or “too long.” When in actuality, it is short and prone to shrinkage.
Private school uniforms are unregulated under NSW’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 - SECT 17 Education, meaning Black students are not explicitly protected and racism is allowed to exist under the disguise of grooming codes and white professionalism in non-government schools.
Hairstylist Chrissy Zemura, who is spearheading a campaign for TAFE to include Afro hair education in its hairdressing course, said there are three curl types: type two (wavy), type three (curly), and type four (coily).
“Each curl type has sub-classifications based on the width of the curl pattern. These range from A (wide or loose), B (medium), or C (small or tight),” she said.
“Afro hair is not a hairstyle, it is a hair type. Australia is a very diverse nation, we cannot have a one size fits all uniform policy,” Zemura added. ”These ‘uniform policies’ enforce Eurocentric beauty standards on multicultural students. This is not right, it needs to change.”
Whether my Afro is out or in a protective style of braids or cornrows, twists, buns or dreadlocks, it is a direct link to my heritage. My hair is my culture, and ultimately, my identity.
Erasure of African culture and identity should not be an additional cost to attending a private school in Australia. First-generation immigrant parents worked hard to get their children the best education, which is why I believe they can be reluctant to challenge the status quo.
But as a second-generation immigrant and an uncle to a young niece and nephew with empowering dreadlocks, I believe it is my responsibility to call out these racist uniform policies that force us to assimilate.
Independent and religious schools are upholding white supremacist values by forcing Black students to shave their “inappropriate” hair. When my hair grew a few inches, I would shave it to the requested “number one or two,” knowing failure to comply would constitute a uniform violation that could lead to being asked to leave the school forever.
Convincing Afro-diasporic students that their natural state is “extreme” also instills anti-Black values in students. It conditions students of the African diaspora to think our natural selves are not “presentable” in society, leading us to internalise and uphold these colonial values. My biggest post-school shock was my Afro not being policed by management at my jobs. I caught myself preparing to adapt to the dominant culture — but that never had to happen.
These dehumanising uniform policies promote inequality between Afro-diasporic students and their non-Black peers. I remember how much freedom my white male counterparts were afforded with their styling options. Think gel, clay, mousse, hairspray, faux hawks, faded sides, side part, middle part, crew cut and undercuts — a level of self-expression Black students were, and still are, denied.
Then came the feat of managing my Afro-textured hair in country Australia. Regional hairdressers lacked experience with Afro-textured hair so much that I was always the local stylist’s “very first” Afro-textured client, and it was “so cool” for them. Hello, thinly veiled othering.
The infatuation with my hair from my peers and the discourse that surrounds it is rooted in microaggressive racism. My earliest memories growing up were feeling the gaze of the locals in Orange, NSW. People would ask to “pat” my hair, some doing so without permission. It would start with one request, and soon enough, an unsolicited group of students would join in cooing, “Oh my God, it’s like a sheep.”
From infant school through high school, I was likened to a sheep. Country kids would ask if they could bring their “shearers” in to “shear” my head. Something they would do to an animal, they jokingly wanted to do to a human — but all I could do was politely laugh. It wasn’t until I tasted pro-Black activism for the first time from Solange Knowles (whom I ironically performed ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ with onstage at Sydney Opera House) that I realised these light-hearted jokes, comparisons, requests or lack thereof, were inherently malicious.
I remember one student took my dissent so personally, her face was disgusted. I now realise white students at school (some unconsciously) thought they had the right to touch my body unsolicitedly. To this day, this type of white entitlement forces me to submissively consent to avoid confrontation. Sometimes it takes too much energy to justify why people should not touch my hair and my body.
As I’ve gotten older and slowly unpacked the microaggressions, the “othering” and the white supremacist values that surrounded a younger me, I can laugh at my final act of rebellion at school.
The final day of year 12, I challenged the natural order as I turned up to the formal graduation ceremony with neat cornrows — well above the collar. I knew I was safe because no school wants the PR backlash for denying a student their graduation, right? Besides, I was getting into the festive season with the rest of the girls, who had fresh new ombres, some with fake tans darker than me, but that is a different article.
I am calling on education ministers in each state and territory, particularly NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell, to be on the right side of history and make it illegal for schools to discriminate against student’s natural Afro hair.
Black students are continuously othered and singled out for their natural hair and it’s something we simply cannot change. Our hair is something we live with and is put on display for the world to see every time we leave the house. Do not punish us for this.