School will allow black students keep hair braids after ‘ban’ furore
A Melbourne public school that told two students of South Sudanese descent to remove their braids because they did not represent the school has relented after the students took their story to the media.
Sixteen-year-old twins Grace and Tahbisa told Fairfax Media they had been pulled out of class at Bentleigh Secondary College and told to remove their braids by the end of the week, in a move they said was attacking their African culture.
“We were told that our hair doesn’t represent the school,” Grace said. “It’s not a problem and it doesn’t affect our education. They are asking us to look like everyone else.”
The school’s principal, Helene Hiotis, originally said the girls had to remove their braids to comply with the school’s “strict uniform policy” that “applies equally to all students,” but by Friday they had been offered an exemption.
“We are a welcoming school and I am absolutely comfortable with students expressing their cultural heritage,” Hiotis said in a statement, issued through the education department.
“The family has been offered a school uniform exemption. We will work with them on this so the girls can wear their new braided hairstyle to school. Our uniform policy is something the school has worked very hard on. Exemptions to the uniform policy are always available where appropriate in situations like this one.”
The twins said they had worn braids since they were babies. “It’s a protective style. It looks good and it keeps our hair growing … it is part of our identity.”
The school’s uniform policy, set out on its website, requires that hair be “kept regularly washed and in a healthy state”.
“Hair grooming, styling and colouring must be appropriate to a school setting,” it says. “No extremes will be acceptable including dreadlocks, bright hair dyes, or shaved heads.”
A spokesman for education minister James Merlino said all government schools “must have an exemption application process for any students with particular religious, cultural or other needs”. “Students should always feel supported and comfortable to express their culture in Victorian government schools,” he said.
Dr Prasanna Srinivasan, a lecturer in early childhood education and expert in postcolonial studies and critical race theory from Monash University, said the incident was “really quite upsetting” and showed the school was not genuinely comfortable with multiculturalism.
Srinivasan said she was particularly concerned by the school reportedly telling the students their braids did not “represent” the school. “What does it represent?” she said. “Does the school represent multiculturalism, or not?”
She said the school was effectively telling the students to blend in and look like the “mainstream”, and, in saying that an ordinary hairstyle for black women and girls was not mainstream, was defining the mainstream as white.
“I think the school has made these rules in order to exclude certain ways of being in this school,” she said. “Is it more than the braids that the school wants to exclude? Is it their skin colour, is it their otherness that is bothering them?”
Srinivasan migrated to Australia from India as an adult and said she was “othered” for aspects of her cultural expression, which had since become acceptable because they had been adopted into white fashions. “The dot on my head, or the nose ring that I wore, were ridiculed and I was challenged every time I went outside,” she said.
She applauded the bravery of the girls in standing up, and said: “there are others who are still keeping quiet”.
Srinivasan also questioned the need for so strict a uniform policy in a public school. The policy also forbids any form of facial piercing and any jewellery other than simple stud or sleeper earrings and a watch.
“It’s about determining what is ‘appropriate’ and it’s such a weasel word, because once you start saying things are appropriate you can say things are not appropriate, it’s a binary,” she said. “The system just does its job so quietly.
The Victorian equal opportunity and human rights commissioner, Kristen Hilton, said some schools had not got the balance quite right between their uniform policies and respecting their students’ diversity.
“While Victorian law allows schools and educational authorities to set reasonable standards of dress, schools must balance this with their obligations under law not to discriminate on the basis of race or physical features,” Hilton said.
“There is a clear difference between students whose hairstyle connects them to their culture and students who have gotten braids or cornrows on an overseas holiday.
“Schools are extensions of our society. They should be proud to promote their diversity and celebrate the many cultures that make up our society.”
Professor Anita Harris, from the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, said it was difficult to imagine a similar debate happening today in schools in the US or UK. “There needs to be an acceptance that people have different kinds of hair and the way that you style your hair to make it neat and tidy is your own business,” she said.
Harris called for a holistic overhaul of school uniform policies, “so we aren’t talking about creating exemptions and making exceptions as if there’s an accepted ‘mainstream’”.
“I think we have to have a conversation about diversity and expressing diversity within the scope of a uniform,” she said.