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My latest Free Society Column


Heady stuff as hair meets the High Court

Monday July 11, 2011

An argument about a schoolboy’s haircut has gone to the High Court. Jason Smith finds that the courts are increasingly being asked to arbitrate on moral and cultural issues that should be left to common sense.

What is indirect racial discrimination? Is it being culturally insensitive while having no racist intentions? Is it being racist in an obtuse manner? Is it being oblivious to your own racist views? Recently the High Court gave an example of what it is – it is not giving due consideration to ‘a fundamental cultural practice’.
A teenager known only as G has been a victim of this kind of discrimination perpetrated by his North London school. G, along with many British teenagers, wears his hair in tight cornrow braids. The school’s uniform policy stipulates ‘short, back and sides’ for boys and he therefore contravenes this policy. Exceptions are made to this rule for Sikh and Rastafarian pupils who may wear their hair below collar length but braids, it seems, are beyond the pale. The reason – cornrow braids are popular with members of street gangs. The school argues that by banning cornrow braids it is tackling gang culture.
G’s mother argued with the school that his hairstyle was ‘of great importance to his cultural and racial identity’, adding that her son has suffered a ‘major blow to his self-esteem’ after being turned away from school. Writing in the Guardian, Hannah Pool argued that cornrow braids are a right of passage and a source of pride. Black people are still being told that their hair is not appropriate, and just like the debate over Afros in the Sixties and Seventies this shows that society still does not appreciate the black aesthetic.
Heady stuff indeed.
This raises many questions. While it is true that self-image is particularly important to teenagers, is it really possible to call a hairstyle a ‘fundamental cultural practice’? Since when has it been the job of schools to tackle gangs – isn’t that a job for the police? How is it that the High Court is now responsible for deciding the applicability of school uniform policy? Is this school really up to the job of educating children if it thinks a hairstyle is responsible for the proliferation of gangs?
What is particularly bizarre is that for black hair cornrow braids are pretty much the equivalent of short, back and sides (ie easily manageable and neat). This is why the hairstyle is popular – it needs little looking after. It used to be more popular until black hair products from the US became widely available here during the 1970s and more hairstyles became possible. Cornrow, or canerow as it was known in my neck of the woods, is a practical solution for dealing with hair that needs a fair bit of looking after. It is neither a fundamental cultural practice nor a mark of gang membership.
The regulation of the private sphere and indeed public spaces (see the Manifesto Club’s campaign against the hyper-regulation of public space) seems to have become the popular way of shutting down debate. We shy away from discussing the problem of gangs, or of why it is that society fails to inspire some young people to succeed. Instead we ban hairstyles. We do not have a national debate over religious tolerance, instead we talk about banning the Burka. Hoodies are banned from shopping centres, and there is no discussion about our frankly unhealthy attitude toward the younger generation.
Moral argument is not seen as something for all of society to get involved in. Instead it is for experts, courts and the authorities to decide for us. More and more it is the courts who are deciding what is acceptable in society. This seems to me to be a very bad thing. I have never voted for a judge, and nor do I want the opportunity to, but why do we need a higher authority to sort these things out at all? We are perfectly capable of coming to a conclusion on moral issues without the intervention of any authority.
An upper-middle class, middle-aged judge in the High Court deciding on the rights and wrongs of teenage fashion should seem absurd in any society. In ours it symbolises not only the desire, on behalf of the current political class, to interfere in areas of life previously considered private, but also our own reluctance to take collective responsibility for the society in which we live. A career in the legal profession does not make a person more qualified to decide on moral issues, any more than working on a checkout in a supermarket makes you an expert on commodity prices.
In a more forward-looking, tolerant, sensible society this case would have been thrown out of court and the people involved told to stop wasting the court’s time. That the case was even heard shows the willingness of the authorities to poke their noses into places that in the past they would not have been welcome.

Published by http://www.thefreesociety.org/

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