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Cornows, Culture and Ongoing Colonisation in Our Schools

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Naima Penniman @naimainfinity &

Last week social media was shook when young Black Kiwi Ori O'Malley-Scott shared the news that her brother’s cornrows were banned in his Dunedin high school because of a school’s vague gesture towards inclusion and high standards.

I can't with this!

This story feels personal, especially as an African American who calls New Zealand home.

I have African-American hair, black hair and I wear that hair in afros, puffs, twists and braids of every kind, twist outs, and braid outs with pride. My weekly ritual of hair love includes reconnecting with a piece of me that the world constantly tries to tell me is not lovable, not professional, unpalatable. I remember my hair experiences at school, the struggle to learn to love my hair. I think of my son, an Afrokiwi, and his experiences with negative hair comments.

Hearing this story made me go down a rabbit hole and dear reader, whether or not you are aware of the history of cornrows and the deep-seated problems of white academic institutions policing the hair-styles of black kids - I’m asking you to join me.

It all began when Lewis O'Malley-Scott, a kiwi with African American roots, was told he could no longer wear his hair in cornrows. Lewis has attended Kings College since Year 9, he is currently in Year 12, and for two years he wore his hair in cornrows without a problem.

Last year Lewis wore his hair out and was told by the principal, Nick McIvor, that his afro was not ‘acceptable’. Lewis chose to go back to cornrows as an alternative to the ‘unacceptable’ afro but was then told that the cornrows were seen as ‘extreme’ and therefore were not acceptable under the dress code. Following her viral post, we spoke to his sister Ori O'Malley-Scott about the incident. She said:

“When I found out he was sent home to take out his braids because they were classed as an extreme hairstyle I was disgusted, and Lewis was obviously very upset.”

In his statement to McIvor said that the policy was about “pride in the school, unity and school camaraderie, and a high standard of personal dress”.

It's hard, as a mother, as a member of the black community, to understand how a young person could be proud at a school that would condemn a cultural hairstyle, as extreme. Let alone what sort of friendship or mutual trust is garnered when part of your identity is being systematically and intentionally erased. McIvor goes on to say, “it provides good common ground on which students from many different backgrounds can enjoy inclusion and recognition”, which frankly, given the context, rings hollow.

After this story caught fire on social media and then gained mainstream media attention McIvor has made a complete U-turn and will allow for "significant cultural need" when considering appropriate hairstyles. While the family is pleased with the outcome there is also concerned that the cultural significance is not truly understood.

In a statement to the New Zealand Herald Lewis O’Malley-Scott said,

“They didn't seem to believe cornrows were actually a hairstyle that was worn by people from my culture. In my opinion, he [Mr McIvor] just needs to get out more and visit other parts of the world, then he will notice they are worn a lot.”

My black suspicion is going off. I'm over here wondering if the change of heart was more about reputation then a desire to understand. I am dubious that an attempt has been made to understand black hair and its cultural connection to and with the African Diaspora.

So my reader let me tell you:

Black hair has centuries of history, good and bad. Hair speaks of who we are, where we come from. It is an art that connects us to each other and our ancestors. Black hair in every iteration speaks to our identity - who we are as a people, it connects the diaspora in a deep and meaningful way. Despite its rich cultural expression, meaning and connections the black community is continually having this dismissed - erased in nearly every aspect of society.

Cornrows have a long history for many in the diaspora. Historical evidence of the cultural and societal significance of African hairstyles date back thousands of years. for some in the African American community the idea of telling someone they cannot wear cornrows or have an afro is reminiscent of enslavers shaving their hair to strip them of their identity

Before colonization braids or plaits were used to communicate social status, tribe, culture, marital status, age, and even last name. When Africans were stolen from their homelands many would braid seeds or rice into their hair and the hair of their children to ensure they had something to eat. In some cases this would not help as often the enslaved would have their heads shaved in order to dehumanize them and strip them of their identity.

Whilst living through the atrocities of slavery, cornrows were used as a means of communication throughout the Americas. The cornrow patterns and number would provide maps and distance allowing safe passage for escape. Cornrows and braids and afros and puffs are more then hairstyles, they tie us to our ancestors, symbolise community, heritage, and overcoming slavery and oppression. Cornrows protect our hair, build bonds.

These stories are only one thread in the tapestry that is the history of black hair. One would like to believe that a comrade would recognise and respect our culture.

This apparent lack of understanding appears to be mirrored throughout the New Zealand school system. Other schools that do not allow afro and braided styles include: Auckland Grammar School, Macleans College, and Hastings Boys' High School. The principals of Timaru Christian School and Auckland's Rosmini College said they would consider reviewing their policies. Sacred Heart College and Macleans College in Auckland, and St John's College in Hamilton – did not respond to requests for comment.

The principal of Auckland Grammar, Tim O'Connor, said the rules were linked to the school's "high standards", but did not answer questions specific to Afros and braids.

At Otago Boys' High School you can find their uniform and grooming policy online and states hair "must be neat and appropriate for school" and does not permit braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, mullets and plaits.

Banning the way our hair grows out of our head is discrimination at best and blatant racism at worst. What part of our hair fails to achieve a “high standards'' is it the failure to achieve white standards? Failing to recognise our culture is not acceptable.

We are here, this too is our home.


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