A London boy was sent home from his first day of school for wearing his hair in cornrows, which apparently violated his school's strict dress code. Now a court has ruled this was discriminatory.
Andrew Prindiville, headteacher of St. Gregory's Catholic Science College, defended the school's decision: "Our uniform and haircut policy for students other than sixth formers is a critical part of our strategy for maintaining excellent behaviour, for keeping gang mentality out of the school and for ensuring that students do not adopt attire or haircuts that may encourage that mentality." He claimed the dress code would also affect white students, saying, "For example, the school ban on shaven heads is part of a conscious determination to avoid white boys, whether English or, say, eastern European, adopting any form of 'skinhead' styles with all the negative, and sometimes racist, connotations that go with this." This is somewhat unconvincing, though — while skinhead haircuts are well-known for their associations with anti-Semitism, cornrows are a common hairstyle that happens to be worn primarily by black people. Maybe some London gangs use them as their style of choice, but banning them as gang-related seems an awful lot like equating black hair with gangster hair. It also impinges on some family traditions important to the student, identified as G. He says,
I really like my hair and it's been that way all my life. This problem at school was the first time me and my mum ever talked about my hair, it's so normal to us ... I really like my hair, my brother and dad have cornrows and we all like it. I really don't want to cut it off. This was the first time I had to ask the question, 'what's wrong with my hair?'
Schools shouldn't necessarily have to honor all family traditions, but they do need to make sure they're not branding certain styles as bad just because they're most often worn by people of color. And if their mission is to educate students, they probably don't want to start out by implying that there's something wrong with them. A judge agrees: "I am satisfied that if the policy is applied without the possibility of exception, then it is unlawful. I have decided that there was unlawful indirect racial discrimination that was not justified." The school will now have to take students' family histories into account — and meanwhile, G is at a new school where "everyone is different and the teachers only care that I am learning." Sounds like they could teach St. Gregory's a lesson or two.
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