The first edition of the World Afro Day has just taken place in London. It’s a day designed to be proud of natural hair and a chance to fight against discrimination. FAB interviewed its founder, Michelle De Leon.
Hearing Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”, the event World Afro Day had definitely begun, on Friday, September 15, in London. Presented by Miss USA 2016 Deshauna Barber, the evening was a success, in front of a crowd of women (and a few men) won over by the numerous presentations – trichologists, entrepreneurs, researchers – who were there to analyze and dismount discrimination against natural hair. After a morning dedicated to education, with many classes invited to celebrate all types of hair, and the world’s largest afro-hair-care lesson – the best moment of the evening was the presentation by Vernon François, British hairdresser of celebrities, who takes care of the hair of Serena Williams, Ruth Negga and Lupita Nyong’o. Founder of his own brand of hair products, his charisma and his humor won over the public. Some women even spontaneously took the mic to talk about their relationship with their hair throughout their lives. And the panel of questions could have lasted hours… It was a total success.
FAB: What’s the purpose of World Afro Day?
Michelle De Leon: I kept hearing people complaining about their hair, of not being confident about wearing their hair natural. I have a daughter, who is 11, and I didn’t want her to go through that. I didn’t want her to have that same negative view of her hair. She has a very positive view of her hair . One day she was singing about how she loved her hair and I thought I want every little black and mixed race girl to feel that good about their hair. I just wanted to change things.
FAB: So, you want to tell women that they don’t have to relax their hair…
M.D.L.: I want to tell them that you don’t have to change your original hair type: you were born this way, it is designed for you, it suits you. But somehow the message of society makes us think that it doesn’t suit us. Society makes us think that it’s not good enough.
FAB: What should change, according to you?
M.D.L.: I think it starts at home, the way we raise our children. I had a very clear idea from the very beginning that I wanted my child to love her hair. I didn’t want her to look at other children and feel inferior and go through my process. That starts at home. But even though I gave her this confidence, society doesn’t feel the same way about that. It’s also about being able to go in the world and never have to change her hair to get a job or to pursue her dreams.
FAB: In France, the official apprentice to be a hairdresser doesn’t include afro hair. What’s the situation in the UK?
M.D.L.: In the UK it is very similar to France. Only recently the Hair Council recognized that hairdressers weren’t trained enough in afro hair. It used to be a separate qualification, and you had to pay an extra cost to learn afro hair. Now it’s included in the standard course. But a lot needs to change: if you go into a standard European hair salon in the UK, they’re going to turn you away or struggle to give you the same level of service. If people are honest, the hair market is still quite segregated, even in the US. Black people go to black salons; white people go to white salons. But it doesn’t make sense: hairdressers should just be trained in hair. Doctors are not trained in white or black bodies!
FAB: Economically, being able to style everybody’s hair makes sense…
M.D.L.: It does make economical sense to train hairdressers to be able to do afro hair. Women with afro hair spend six times more money than white women! Because we spend more money on products, but we also change haircuts very often – we are versatile. And also wigs or weaves are very expensive.
FAB: What advice do you have for hairdressers who don’t know how to style and cut afro hair?
M.D.L.: There is now a trend for using cornrow braids: trends do go over when they feel like it. Kim Kardashian decided to wear braids, now every girl wants braids in their hair! But braiding has been very popular for black women for a long time. So I think it’s a matter of will. I think if you want to be the best at what you do, you should be able to style everybody’s hair. I think the education colleges should be able to break down the barriers, and include afro hair.
FAB: Are you working with the Hair Council in the UK?
M.D.L.: Not yet. I have just started to work on the project. But eventually, I will talk to everybody who wants to change things. For the moment I want to raise awareness, give confidence to women. It’s almost as if I want to change the inside of the heads before the outside.
FAB: After World Afro Day, what’s next?
M.D.L.: We have plans. We did a world record lesson today, and we will continue to give lessons online for schools and parents all over the world. And we are going to study some of the biasses that exist in the workplace about black woman. The research does not exist yet, and we need this evidence to push employers to change their attitude and be more inclusive.