Why should my daughter have had to fight for her education because of her afro hair? | Kate Williams

Guidance that schools should not discriminate against Black and mixed-race pupils for their hairstyles is long overdue

My daughter Ruby was proud of her hair. Growing up as a mixed-race girl, she loved her natural texture, but that wasn’t always a straightforward journey. As a teenager, after years of using heat to make her hair straighter – and smaller – she embraced wearing her afro as an expression of who she was. That fragile self-acceptance was shattered when her hair started being policed at school.

“Your hair’s getting too big, you’re going to have to do something about that,” one teacher told her of her natural afro, the hair she was born with. “Why don’t you try chemical relaxer?” they asked my child, suggesting she use potent and damaging chemicals to strip her hair of its natural texture. Ruby was confused, hurt and humiliated. In a classroom of teenagers with dyed and shaved styles, it was her hair that was deemed so inappropriate that she was suspended from school: “I don’t care if it’s bright blue, just make it smaller,” one teacher told her of the size of her natural afro. The school claimed Ruby’s hair was in breach of their appearance policies, which stated that “afro style hair must be of reasonable size and length”. But on the day she was first sent home, Ruby’s hair was too short to be tied back, leaving her with no choice but to braid it or use chemical relaxer on her hair in order to conform to the policy.

Hair should never be a reason for a child’s education to be withdrawn, and Ruby’s case shows how damaging blanket appearance policies can be when they miss important cultural or practical understanding of different hair textures. Being disciplined for her hair completely changed her relationship with school. Previously, she had been happy and thriving. After being suspended (which she would be several times again after that first time) she became anxious and depressed, and felt victimised. As her mother, I still find these memories deeply painful.

Ruby Williams. showing her hairstyle the first time she was sent home from school, when she was 14.
Ruby Williams. showing her hairstyle the first time she was sent home from school, when she was 14. Photograph: Kate Williams

At first, we considered having her hair braided. But our family’s anger stopped us going through with it. Why should any child be forced to change the hair they were born with? Instead, we decided to fight – and we found that the law is on our side. We were able to challenge the school in court, and came to a settlement. On Thursday, in a huge milestone, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) issued new guidance to schools to warn them that appearance policies that ban certain hairstyles, including “natural Afro hairstyles, braids, cornrows, plaits and head coverings, amongst other styles”, without allowing for exceptions on racial and religious grounds are likely to be unlawful.

It should not have come to this, however. Ruby’s was one of several high-profile cases in recent years that should have caused schools to stop and think about their hair policies.

Families should feel confident that their children have the right to wear the hair they were born with, and are able to defend themselves against any institution that tells them otherwise. There is also support available for families who need it – the EHRC has an open legal support scheme, and my family leads a parent support group, in association with World Afro Day.

I don’t believe that any school intentionally sets out to discriminate against Black or mixed-race pupils due to the way their hair grows, or how they choose to style or maintain their hair. But it’s vital that educators take an active role in understanding that some hair policies can lead to these pupils being unfairly treated. As Ruby’s white parent, my education is an ongoing process, too, and it’s vital that white parents of mixed-race children are allies.

My daughter is a survivor, but she shouldn’t have to be; hair discrimination has no place in our schools or workplaces. Every step in that direction is vindication for Ruby and the countless other children who continue to be affected by this injustice.

  • Kate Williams is an educational researcher and campaigner against afro hair discrimination

  • As told to Lucy Pasha-Robinson

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.


Kate Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Black pupils are being wrongly excluded over their hair. I’m trying to end this discrimination | Emma Dabiri
Across the UK, cases of black children being punished for their hairstyles have escalated. I want to amend the Equality Act, says Emma Dabiri, author of Don’t Touch My Hair

Emma Dabiri

25, Feb, 2020 @9:32 AM

Article image
Schools in Great Britain warned not to discriminate against minority pupils’ hair styles
Equality watchdog says appearance policies should include exceptions on racial and religious grounds

Sally Weale Education correspondent

26, Oct, 2022 @11:01 PM

Article image
Survey shows teachers unaware equality laws apply to pupils’ hair
Just 12% of teachers polled received equality and diversity training that included policies on hair

Richard Adams Education editor

16, Mar, 2022 @12:01 AM

Being black and middle class doesn't mean you face less prejudice | Joseph Harker

Joseph Harker: Social status and wealth don't protect people from prejudice, new research reveals. Race is not a subset of class

Joseph Harker

05, Jun, 2011 @9:00 PM

Article image
Talk of ‘anti-white sentiment’ distracts from the fight against institutional racism | Fope Olaleye
The EHRC has done a disservice to the work being done on race equity, says NUS black students’ officer Fope Olaleye

Fope Olaleye

28, Oct, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Parent condemns barrister over 'stroppy teenager of colour' tweet
Mother of Ruby Williams, sent home from London school over afro hairstyle, calls Jon Holbrook’s tweet ‘shocking’

Aamna Mohdin Community affairs correspondent

26, Jan, 2021 @1:56 PM

Article image
Unilever pledges to protect staff with afros and dreadlocks
Firm signs Halo Code after survey finds one in five women feel pressure to straighten hair

Robert Booth and Sally Weale

09, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
'After assembly, I cried': Surrey school grapples with race issues
School became scene of protest against perceived ‘white privilege’, though students say concerns are starting to be addressed

Nazia Parveen Community affairs correspondent

28, Mar, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
As a teacher I need to be able to talk about racism without government meddling | Anonymous teacher
With ‘white privilege’ and ‘victim narratives’ in the government’s crosshairs, teachers like myself are worrying about how to do our jobs


19, Nov, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
School hair policies are tied up in race and class | Letters
Letters: Oladapo Feyisetan and Mike Woodcock respond to an article on discrimination against afro hair


30, Oct, 2022 @5:27 PM