Row over corn rows hairstyle

By contributor Sean Carey

An 11 year-old African-Caribbean boy was refused entry to a Roman Catholic secondary school in North London in 2009 because he was wearing ‘corn rows’ (braided hair close to the scalp). Two years later, he has won a significant victory in the High Court.

Cornrow mohawk
Cornrow mohawk. Flickr/J Daniel Gonzalez.
The decision by St. Gregory’s Catholic Science College in Harrow to exclude him was ostensibly based on two reasons.

  1. His hair style contravened the school dress code. Boys are obliged to wear their hair in a military-style “short back and sides.”
  2. His hair style might encourage separatism, and possibly a “gang culture,” within the institution.

The judge ruled that the school’s decision was “unlawful” and encouraged “indirect discrimination” by not taking into account an individual’s cultural background and heritage.

“There are a number of Afro-Caribbeans for whom cutting their hair and wearing it in corn rows is a matter of their cultural background,” he said, “and can work against them on the basis of their ethnicity.”

Sewing in the braids. Flickr/Samantha Steele
Sewing in the braids. Flickr/Samantha Steele
The case is unusual in the U.K., although exceptions have been made in the case of male Sikhs. Because of their religious tradition of wearing turbans, they are exempt from wearing crash helmets while riding motorcycles and scooters.

But the new ruling on corn rows was based on secular customary behaviour — in this instance, family and a wider cultural tradition amongst some African-Caribbeans (and Black Africans).

A spokesperson for St. Gregory’s said that it is “naturally disappointed” (press release PDF) with the ruling and is considering taking the case to the Court of Appeal.

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