Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues


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My Hair Is Beautiful Too: The Plight of the Black Girls in South Africa and the US

J. Michal Forbes

Both the US and South Africa are parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which aims to eliminate racial discrimination and promote understanding amongst all races.[i] In fact, both countries have representatives on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is tasked with implementing the ICERD and meets twice a year to work on resolving international issues of discrimination. One issue that has emerged recently that could have wider implications for both state parties is hair style enforcement in public schools.

In the last 6 weeks there have been controversies in the US and in South Africa regarding school policies discriminating against hairstyles worn by black students. School administrations came under scrutiny for both blatant and subtle policies that did not accommodate for reasonable ethnic and cultural practices.

In Pretoria, South Africa, the students at the Pretoria High School for Girls (“PHSG”) alleged that school officials were telling them to straighten their hair. This news took Twitter by storm and the hashtag #StopRacismAtPetoriaGirlsHigh nearly broke the Internet. An online petition started, which now has over 32,000 signatures, claims that the school’s code of conduct discriminates against Black and Muslim girls, the students are banned from speaking in African languages (such as Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu and Venda) at school, and students are prohibited from socializing with one another.

On its face, the school’s policy is not blatantly discriminatory. However, it does imply that African hair in its natural state is “messy.[ii]”  The school’s code of conduct policy states that cornrows and braids were allowed be only a maximum of 10 millimeter in diameter, go straight back, and have no beads or decorations. Hairstyles should be conservative and neat and students should refrain from any kind of eccentric fashion styles. However, what constitutes eccentric? What constitutes a style that is fashionable?

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Looking closely at the language in the school’s policy, many popular styles that black teenager girls would wear would be deemed inappropriate under the policy. Typically black teenagers, in both the US and South Africa wear extensions, beads, Afros or even patterned cornrows in their hair. Under the policy, all of those hairstyles are prohibited.

As a result of international media attention to these issues, PHSG stated that they plan on revising the Code of Conduct and would look for input from all of the students, regardless of ethnicity, and their parents.[iii]  PHSG also reported that they needed to “end all hostilities” and resume classes as normal.

This situation isn’t too far removed from instances in the United States. This past July, Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky decided “dreadlocks, braids, twists, and “cornrolls” (they likely meant cornrows) are “extreme and distracting and not allowed to be worn by any of its students.[iv] Essentially, the school banned hairstyles primarily worn by the school’s black population. This wording went unchallenged until the sole black female in the Kentucky State House took to Twitter to display her disgust and disappointment.

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A month later, the school suspended the policy and updated it to better reflect its student population. However, the original policy and the outrage it caused gained little to no media coverage. In fact, most of the time when black students in the US face discrimination in schools, there is no international media coverage.[v]

The blatant ban against black hairstyles in Kentucky and the implied ban against black hairstyles in South Africa are similar. Yet, why does the incident in South Africa receive significantly more coverage and press? News outlets such as NPR, CNN and the Washington Post all covered the issue. But, the incident in Kentucky was covered only by local newspapers and Essence Magazine.

Why is this a bigger deal in South Africa? Perhaps it is that the US is seen worldwide as a melting pot where all racial groups are treated equally.  South Africa is still a fairly new democracy, with apartheid ending less than 25 years ago. It may also be that in South Africa, black Africans make up 76% of the population versus, in America, blacks make up a mere 12.3% of the population.[vi]

When the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination meets again in May 2017, it will be interesting to see if the banning of black hairstyles is discussed. Considering that the U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that it is legal for businesses to discriminate against employees with dreadlocks, the world should be paying attention to the work of the Committee next year and any potentially impacts this judicial decision could have.[vii] If this issue is not resolved across the globe, black hair will continue to be seen as unruly, untamed and naturally untidy, instead of as BEAUTIFUL.

J. Michal Forbes is a proud native of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Ms. Forbes has a fiery passion for international law, travel and frozen yogurt. After receiving her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore she taught ESOL in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area before joining the US Peace Corps in 2011. Ms. Forbes served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine from 2011 to 2013, in a small town between the Red Sea and the Black Sea in Crimea. Fluent in Russian, Ms. Forbes soon caught the travel bug and traveled/worked extensively throughout Eastern Europe during her 27 month commitment. Currently a 3L, Ms. Forbes is a member of the International Law Society, Immigration Law Society, Black Law Student Association and the Women Lawyers as Leaders Initiative. She has worked for Maryland Legal Aid and the NAACP’s Office of the Attorney General. She was recently awarded the honor of being named Article Editor with the University of Baltimore Law Forum, a scholarly legal journal focused on rising issues in Maryland. It is her dream to work for the U.S. government assisting with asylum seekers and refugee. 

In her free time, Ms. Forbes enjoys eating frozen yogurt with her husband and learning Arabic.

[i] Parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination“. United Nations Treaty Collection.

[ii] S Africa: Black students protest ‘racist’ hair ruleshttp://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/08/africa-black-students-protest-racist-hair-rules-160829083905084.html.

[iii] The Way Forward Letter, http://www.phsg.org.za/uploads/cms/files/way_forward_letter.pdf.

[iv] Kentucky High School’s Dress Code ‘Stinks of Racism,’ Bans Dreadlocks, Cornrows And Braids, http://www.essence.com/2016/07/28/kentucky-high-school-bans-natural-hairstyles-racism.

[v] See 6 Times Black Kids Faced Discrimination in School, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/6-times-black-kids-faced-discrimination-in-school_us_562f882fe4b06317990f5a4b.

[vi] See Mid-year population estimates available at http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0302/P03022013.pdf; Census: White majority in U.S. gone by 2043, http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/06/13/18934111-census-white-majority-in-us-gone-by-2043.

[vii] Federal Court Rules It Legal to Discriminate Against Employees With Dreadlocks, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/beauty/a3616858/dreadlocks-discrimination-case/.

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