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Britain joins the fight against discrimination against afros, dreadlocks

A television mini-series that charts the life of Madam CJ Walker, a black hair mogul, will show the identity politics surrounding afro hair.

“It’s important to take a look at how our thinking about ourselves and our hair has evolved during the last 100 years,” says A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-granddaughter, who wrote the biography on which the four-part drama, starring Octavia Spencer as Walker, is based. “We need to remember that our ancestors struggled with self-confidence in a world which valued European beauty standards and ignored African skin colour, hair texture and facial features.’

Self Made: Inspired By the Life of Madam CJwalker is available on Netflix March 20, 2019. This release comes at a time in which black hair is still seen as provocative and even illegal. There have been many instances when students of color were excluded from mainstream education because they wore braids or afros. Deandre Arnold, a Texas high school graduate, was told that his dreadlocks were in violation of his school’s dress code. He would not be allowed to walk at the graduation ceremony. Ruby Williams, a pupil in Hackney, London was sent home by her school because of her distracting afro.

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“That a black schoolgirl’s hair, in its completely natural state, made headlines at all demonstrates that misunderstandings persist,” says Wofai JE, the executive director of Initiative.dkf who last year created Scalped, an outdoor theatre piece about afro hair.

Johanna Yaovi from the Natural Hair Organisation the Curl Talk Project said that black hair is still being systematically policened. These types of situations are likely to continue as long as afro hair doesn’t become the norm.

The prejudice against black hair is a result of the slavery era, according to Carol Tulloch, a professor and author. She explains that the natural hair of slaves was sometimes called “wool”: this derogatory term referred to the texture of black hair, and also suggested the animality associated with slaves. This racism continued across the Atlantic. “Between 1914 Lux soap ads claimed that the product could care for all materials and ‘wont shrink wool’. This was illustrated by a black child in a tub with his hair covered in white suds.

There are still many crimes committed against black hair. Zendaya, a 2015 Oscars host, was ridiculed for her dreadlocks. Gabrielle Union, America’s Got Talent host, was also told by producers that her hair was too black. Initiative.dkf’s Damilola Dak Fashola says that many black women feel the need to cover their natural hair to make progress in life.

HAIR LOVE was nominated for an Oscar in February. It is a story about a father learning how to style his daughter’s black hair while she is in hospital. The Crown Act is a critical issue. If we can get it passed in all 50 States, we can stop stories like Deandre’s Arnold.

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California’s Crown Act (Create Respectful and Open Workplace For Natural Hair) prohibits discrimination at work. “This is the first major legislation to make it illegal for employers discriminate against individuals and black women in particular,” Dr Kimberly R Moffitt (associate professor of Africana Studies, University of Maryland Baltimore County).

Emma Dabiri, author of Don’t Touch My Hair, started a campaign called to bring a modified version of the Equality Act to the UK. Hackney council stated that it will make the guidance for afro hairstyles more inclusive in light of Ruby Williams’ case. Wofai, JE says that the Crown Act (in Britain) would help to avoid further misinterpretations or incidents, particularly for young people who are just starting to understand themselves. Just as there are laws and acts to protect people against discrimination based on race, so is hair.

A’Lelia Bundles’ great-grandmother’s story is resonating with her for 2020. “CJ’s message wasn’t about hair and haircare. But ultimately, it was about political power and personal power.” What would her feelings have been about the Crown Act? I believe she would have funded the lobbying effort.”