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“It’s more than just hair”

Former UN Human Rights fellow of African Descent, Stephanie Cohen, is working tirelessly to end hair inequality in the United Kingdom and empowering Black people to embrace their natural hair.

Activist Stephanie Cohen recently participated in the UN Human Rights Fellowship Programme for People of African Descent. © Stephanie Cohen

“When I was in grammar school in the UK, I saw less people that had my hair,” said Stephanie Cohen, a 24-year-old woman of mixed heritage with parents from Jamaica and Sri Lanka. “So, more people started questioning me like, why is it so big or why is it so messy?”

In the United Kingdom, 59 per cent of Black students experience name calling or uncomfortable questions about their hair at school, while one in four Black adults had a negative experience at school in relation to their hair texture, according to the Halo Collective, an alliance of organisations and individuals working to create a future without hair discrimination.

Cohen is co-founder of the Halo Collective and recently participated in the UN Human Rights Fellowship programme for people of African Descent, an intensive human rights training for people of African descent, from the diaspora, who are engaged in promoting the rights of people of African descent.

“People would say you look better when you straighten your hair, so I then felt kind of insecure about my natural hair,” she said. “So, I did feel compelled to straighten it, so I could conform and fit in, which looking at it now, I've learned that's not the right thing to do.”

According to the Halo Collective, race-based hair discrimination has been illegal in the UK since the Equalities Act became law in 2010. However, Cohen said race-based hair discrimination is still prevalent for Black men and women at school and in the workplace. The Halo Collective found that 46 per cent of parents say their children’s school policy punished Afro hair, while one in five Black women feel societal pressure to straighten their hair for work.

“Many of my friends are being told that they should straighten their hair for a job interview because they would be respected more, which is a pure example of hair discrimination,” she said. “It's a Westernized issue because it's about favoring a particular culture over another.”

Cohen highlighted how the Halo Collective is trying to change this discriminatory mindset in the UK by asking schools to adopt the UK’s first Black Hair Code, the Halo Code, which protects students and staff who come to school with natural hair and protective hairstyles associated with their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities.

Everyone should be treated equal and respect everyone for the differences they have.

Stephanie Cohen, Community Activist and Legal Academic

When she’s not advocating to end hair discrimination for good, Cohen also works as a community organiser at The Advocacy Academy (TAA), a social justice organisation where she does community outreach in Brixton, a district in London. She’s been involved with TAA since the age of 16 when she embarked on a fellowship to learn more about systemic structures underpinning racial injustices. She received her law degree from the University of York in 2019.

Cohen found the UN Human Rights Fellowship Programme invaluable for her current role at TAA and as an advocate for ending hair inequality with the Halo Collective.

“It’s given me an international lens as opposed to a really hyper localized grassroots approach because that's the approach that I have always used in my work,” she said. “We have more of a voice, a platform and I think the fellowship has helped us see that we can have more collaboration with the UN, not just its mechanisms, but also the people within it.”

Other UN documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also resonates with Cohen’s work, especially Article 7 that states that all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.

“I'm trying to equally protect people and make sure that all their needs are covered, and people do get the justice that they deserve,” she said.

*This story is part of an occasional series of stories of individuals or organizations that stand up for human rights. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the position and opinions of UN Human Rights.