‘I Internalised The Idea That My Hair Was Deviant’: Emma Dabiri On Reclaiming Her Own Hair Power

Emma Dabiri talks hair and leading the conversation in Channel 4's new documentary Hair Power: Me And My Afro

Emma Dabiri

by Annie Vischer |

Renowned author Emma Dabiri and teenage campaigner Ruby Williams appear in Channel 4 documentary Hair Power: Me And My Afro. Here, they tell Grazia about their own hair journeys.

Few women have explored the potency of Afro hair to a greater extent than Emma Dabiri. A social historian (she’s a fellow in the Africa department at SOAS University of London and a visual sociology PhD researcher at Goldsmiths), Emma’s debut book Don’t Touch My Hair was published in 2019 to worldwide acclaim. This month, she leads the conversation in the documentary Hair Power: Me And My Afro as contributors – including teen campaigner Ruby Williams – talk frankly about how their identities have been shaped by their hair.

Growing Up

Emma grew up in 1980s Dublin, the daughter of a Black Irish-Nigerian father and a white Trinidadian-born mother, in a predominantly white community. ‘My hair was always presented to me as a problem that needed to be solved and managed,’ says

Emma. ‘I internalised the idea that my hair was deviant, as well as the expectation from society that I had to do whatever was necessary to make it look ‘normal’. Normal meant straight or a form of curly that subscribed to the norms associated with European hair, certainly not the coiled Afro textured hair that I had.’

The Reality Today

Those same expectations weigh heavy on many today. Take Ruby, for example. In 2016 and 2017, Ruby, then aged 15, was repeatedly sent home from The Urswick School in Hackney because her Afro was deemed in breach of the school’s hair policy. ‘I was told they wouldn’t care if my hair was bright blue as long as I made it “smaller”,’ claims Ruby. ‘One teacher suggested I shove my hair into my mum’s old tights. Another asked if I’d heard of chemical relaxer.’ (The school’s governing body said, ‘We do not accept that the school has discriminated, even unintentionally, against any individual or group.’ The hair policy has since been removed from the school’s website.)

Emma is no stranger to narratives like Ruby’s. ‘It’s horrific that things like this are still happening. There’s strength in Ruby’s story. Her family challenged the school and shared her experience publicly. It’s vital to have examples like this made visible.’

Teenage Years

Emma’s own school years were not without a sense of exclusion. ‘A story from one of the show contributors, Mark, really resonated with me. He has Nigerian parents and went to school in a very white area. Curtains were the “in” hairstyle for boys at the time. It’s a style that was impossible for him because our hair grows very differently. That struck a chord with me. When I was at school, I wanted a silky ponytail like all of my friends. I remember feeling very excluded. It seems like such a little thing but moments like that are formative.’

Pushing For Change

Emma and Ruby are both involved in working to make hair discrimination illegal under the UK Equalities Act. ‘There has been a lot of change in recent years in terms of representation,’ notes Emma. ‘Natural hair is more visible in film and on TV and, more noticeably in the US, you’re starting to see Black politicians wearing braids and natural styles publicly. Change is happening but we need legal protection for natural hair in the UK Equalities Act. It needs to be illegal not to hire somebody, to fire somebody, or to exclude a student from school because of their hair. That’s the work that still needs to be done.’

Hair Power: Me And My Afro made in partnership with Dove airs on Channel 4 tonight (on Tuesday 27th October) at 10.15pm and you'll be able to stream it on All 4 after it's initial transmission. Watch the trailer below:

Hair Power: Me And My Afro Trailer

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