World Afro Day: Michelle De Leon on education and proactive action

by | Sep 15, 2022

Today marks the sixth instalment of World Afro Day, a global celebration of Afro hair and identity. This year, the CEO of the organisation Michelle De Leon opens up about the importance of education, STEM and proactive action to banish hair discrimination

A recent survey carried out by Pantene found that 93% of Black people have suffered harassment, microaggressions and discrimination about their natural hair. That’s why this year’s World Afro Day is more important than ever.

Six years from its inception, the campaign has gained global traction and has encouraged everyone, whatever their age, gender or ethnicity, to take action against discrimination. Michelle De Leon, the founder of World Afro Day, has been at the forefront of increasing awareness. She believes that education is key to facilitating sustained change.

In an exclusive conversation with the British Beauty Council, De Leon says: ‘We have created the Afro Inclusion Update for the very purpose of educating people, the resource facilitates opportunities to have conversations around Afro hair and actually do something active towards better representation.’ 

The bitesize guide explains how hair discrimination permeates all facets of life – from nursery to the workplace – and offers 10 easy steps on how everyone can make a difference. Created in collaboration with the World Afro Legacy, the 10-page PDF is designed to increase everyone’s awareness of the different forms of hair discrimination and how we can all work to prevent them. 

Also founded in education is the campaign’s laser-focus on the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths for better representation of Afro identities. This World Afro Day, Dr Zoe Williams, Yewande Akinola MBE, Dr Rolanda Wilkerson and Dr Youmna Mouhamad are all speaking at the Big Hair Assembly, which is set to explore the power of Afro hair from classroom to career.

‘Everybody sees STEM as really essential, important and progressive and we have to marry that message to what we are campaigning for. Also, the reason why World Afro Day has a global reach is because of technology – before social media, we would never have the support from the likes of Janet Jackson, Viola Davis, Naomi Campbell, and Judi Love,’ says De Leon who hopes that this year’s campaign will reach more people than ever. 

She goes on to highlight the power of the classroom for dispelling damaging messages around Afro hair: ‘If you don’t catch it at a young age it becomes an internalised hatred.’ Then, De Leon shares the story of World Afro Day Ambassador Kyla Rose who started to pull out her hair at three years old because it didn’t match what she saw on Elsa in Disney’s Frozen. 

Kyla says: ‘Things started to change when my school included more Black culture and became a part of World Afro Day. Now I love my hair and I’m passionate about other children loving their Afro hair too!’

It’s clear that kids aren’t the only people affected by hair discrimination, and beauty has a role to play in increasing visibility. ‘Black women have unfair pressures out on them to live up to beauty standards that in their natural state they can’t live up to, whether that be in the workplace, in Hollywood or on the catwalk.’

In response, the British Beauty Council has recently joined L’myah Sherae at Enact Equality to help inform national guidance against hair discrimination in the UK. This work is dedicated to strengthening national guidance against Afro hair discrimination for education providers across England. 

The Council joins Michelle De Leon in pushing for proactive action. The founder of World Afro Day says: ‘We need people to understand that everyone can do something active. People with Afro hair don’t have the luxury of being passive, because the everyday narrative acts against us.’ 

Closing our conversation, she puts her campaign into perspective, poignantly sharing: ‘In the 21st century it is no longer acceptable to feel that the way you are born is not acceptable to be successful or valuable in the world.’ 

Image credit: David Roemer. 

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