A NSW musician is campaigning for Black students to be allowed to wear their Afro hair in both natural and protective styles, after being forced to shave his head while attending high school in Orange.
James Emmanuel, who is biracial, was a teenager when he travelled from Orange to his small home town in Kenya and had his 4A/3C Afro hair braided for the first time.
As a student at a private school in Australia, he made sure the hairdresser stuck to school’s dress code: braids above the collar, above the ears, neat and ‘sensible’.
“When I looked in the mirror after my hair was braided for the first time, I saw who I wanted to be,” Emmanuel told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
“Finally I had accessed a part of my culture that had been sealed by White Australian values.”
He thought he was on the money in terms of being respectful to his school but honouring his cultural identity. Wrong. His hair barely lasted more than a few days in Australia, when he was pulled aside by staff and told his “extreme hairstyle” was “not acceptable”.
“It’s never great when disciplinary figures pull you aside and give you that stern talk,” Emmanuel said.
“I can literally hear their tone of voice. Words can’t describe the feeling when your identity is being censored. When you’re made to feel like you’re rebelling, when you’re simply putting your hair into a protective style that is authentic to your hair texture, culture and identity.
“It’s a feeling I don’t want any kid, or my niece and nephew to experience – that’s why I’m gunning so hard for this. I don’t want the kids of today being told their Blackness is not accepted in this world.”
Inspired by the recent momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, Emmanuel launched a petition to make it illegal for schools, both public, private and religious, to discriminate against students for their Afro hair.
“The Anti-Discrimination Act is an incredibly complex piece of legislation, and the lack of clarity means schools are not deterred from banning our Afros and protective styles, like braids, cornrows, locks, and plaits,” he said. (Protective styles are important to maintain curly hair, but racist policies in workplaces the world over have viewed both them and natural Afros as ‘unprofessional’.)
“The rights of culturally diverse students when it comes to uniform policies are unclear, so these institutes are making grooming codes that are often informed by white supremacist values. Generally, these school rule-makers are not conscious of the impact such policies have on the identity of culturally diverse students.”
The petition has taken off, with more than 12,000 people signing it so far. It calls on the NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell to “listen during this time of Black amplification” and push to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 – SECT 17 Education.
Emmanuel says he’s been flooded with messages from Black students schools, “thrilled” that someone is calling out this issue.
“Hair is part of who I am, like my nose, my eye colour and my lips,” he said.
“As a biracial person, I feel racially ambiguous without my Afro. I wear it with pride, and it gives me a sense of belonging to my Kenyan heritage. Without it, I feel naked, stripped and unidentifiable. Without it, I lose a sense of who I am, and society does too.
You can sign his petition here.
Emmanuel – who performs under the name JamarzOnMarz – is also taking part in our six-month docuseries, 27 Pedestrians. Watch episode #7, ‘If You Could Disinvent One Thing, What Would It Be?’ below: