At just 15 years old, Ruby Williams found herself at centre of a legal battle that would later prove to be a turning point for how equality laws are enforced across the UK in relation to hair texture.
As a student at the Urswick school in east London, Williams was repeatedly sent home due to her natural afro hair, which the school claimed breached its policy that “afro style hair must be of reasonable size and length”.
After a three-year legal battle, with her family’s case being supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Williams received a £8,500 out-of-court settlement from the school, although the school did not accept any liability.
Her case is significant in that it became the catalyst for the publication of new guidance by Britain’s equality watchdog, which states that pupils should not be stopped from wearing their hair in natural afro styles at school.
The guidance, informed by the EHRC’s observation that hair discrimination disproportionately affects people with afro hair or protective styles, also states that school uniform policies that ban certain hairstyles, without the possibility for exceptions to be made on racial grounds, are likely to be unlawful.
Kate Williams, Ruby’s mother, said that the family felt as if they were gaslit by the school during the legal battle, but felt supported by the EHRC regarding the validity of their case. “Throughout the process, we were reassured [by the EHRC] that the fact we were feeling so outraged made sense,” she said. “We felt very gaslit by the school itself that we were being unreasonable. I think to have an organisation like [EHRC] involved showed us that we weren’t being unreasonable, and gave us the confidence that we needed.”
Williams’ experience at her east London school is just one of many instances of hair discrimination that occur in schools, workplaces and other public settings across the UK.
These experiences have been well documented. According to research commissioned by Dove, nearly half of black or mixed-race women with afro or textured hair have experienced race-based hair discrimination, while one in four black adults have been sent home from work or faced disciplinary action as a result of their natural hair.
There has also been a lack of education regarding what hair discrimination is, and how it manifests itself. Earlier this year, a survey by the World Afro Day campaign found that only 12% of teachers across the UK said that they had received equality and diversity training that included policies on hair, and that very few teachers were aware that equalities legislation also applies to their school’s policy on hair.
The EHRC’s new guidance regarding hair discrimination in schools is a watershed moment, as it provides much needed clarity to a form of racial discrimination that is otherwise much more ambiguous and less clearcut than other forms of discrimination.
As hair discrimination is a form of racial discrimination, it is protected by the Equality Act 2010. But unlike race, religion, or sexual orientation, hair texture is not explicitly a protected characteristic under the act, which makes forms of discrimination based on hair texture much more pervasive. This means that suspected cases of hair discrimination may be seen as less binary, and harder to prove compared with other forms.
The EHRC’s guidance is long overdue, and limited in that it only references hair discrimination taking place in schools, despite reports of it happening in the workplace and other public spaces. Earlier this year, a survey by the Chartered Management Institute found that in some instances, black workers believed they had been overlooked for employment opportunities due to their hairstyles,
But despite this, the guidance is a first step to making sure that equality laws are enforced in regards to discrimination based on hair texture.
Kate Williams is glad that it has been published, in that it would help to prevent many other children with afro-textured hair experiencing what her daughter went through. “I feel relieved, and for me I feel there’s a legacy to her pain, and also the other children who have had similar experiences to her at school,” she says. “I feel hopeful that now it won’t happen again to other children.”