'Be proud of your hair': Why World Afro Day is being celebrated

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Watch: World Afro Day 2021- the fifth anniversary

A British Olympic swimmer has hailed World Afro Day as a great opportunity for Black boys and girls to be "be proud of their hair".

Alice Dearing, who became the first Black female swimmer to represent Team GB at the Tokyo Olympics, is a special guest at this year's event, sharing her experiences of her Afro hair with school children worldwide.

The 24-year-old told Yahoo News UK: "I love wearing my natural hair out because it's so beautiful and liberating.

"This is me, this is who I am and I'm really proud of it. I love seeing other women wear their natural hair out because it always looks good."

Michelle De Leon with her daughter Estelle at the first World Afro Day in 2017 (RB Incite Photography)
World Afro Day was founded by Michelle De Leon, here pictured with her daughter Estelle at the first event in 2017. (RB Incite Photography)

WAD is an annual event, held on 15 September, that encourages people to celebrate their Afros and inform others of the social challenges caused by having natural Afro hair.

This year marks the fifth WAD since its launch in 2017.

WAD founder Michelle De Leon said she was "excited" and that things had been "busy" in the lead up to this year's event, which has been endorsed by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and received a global excellence award.

De Leon, who lives in London, set up WAD after hearing her daughter singing about her natural hair.

But the event's specific date has historical significance. On 15 September 2016, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal of employee Chastity Jones, who lost her job because of her dreadlocks.

Read more: Woman goes viral for rocking an Afro in her professional headshot

The Court ruled that while hairstyles can be "culturally associated with race", they are not "immutable physical characteristics". In other words, the ruling says that while people can't change their race, they can change their hair style, which means it isn't discriminatory to deny someone a job based on a characteristic they can alter.

De Leon said: "It was very critical for me to have a day that mattered. That 15 September showed that there are laws against expressing Afro hair in the workplace. That's crazy in the 21st century. I wanted people to understand that this was a real problem that we needed to change."

There was a 'Big Hair Assembly' on the day, involving a livestream of 175,000 young people from 237 schools. 

People who wanted to participate in a social media campaign on Wednesday used the hashtag #FabFroFive as they posted five positive words about their Afro. They then challenged five other people to do the same.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 04: Alice Dearing of Team Great Britain competes in the Women's 10km Marathon Swimming on day twelve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Odaiba Marine Park on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Alice Dearing of Team GB participates in the women's 10km marathon swimming on day 12 of Tokyo 2020. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

De Leon said: "We wanted it to be a celebration... but we also wanted to use the power of words. Every Black, mixed-race woman has had some negative words, comments or ideas spoken to her about her hair so we wanted to use the power of words."

De Leon said that the idea of what good hair was affected her while growing up.

A film is being made for De Leon to look back over the last few years, which she says has "brought me to tears."

On the people watching online, including students and teachers, De Leon hoped "they will learn that Afro hair should be celebrated, it shouldn't be stigmatised".

Read more: Dearing becomes first black female swimmer to represent Britain at Olympics

Team GB star Dearing, who co-founded the Black Swimming Association last year, said she's proud of what WAD has achieved.

She said: "It's just so great that there are people out there letting Black boys and Black girls be proud of their hair. Their hair is loved and appreciated and beautiful, and it's fine as it is.

"I'm really happy and proud to have been asked to be a part of it – everybody's got their own story with natural hair and their progression through it."

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 04: Alice Dearing of Team Great Britain after competing in the Women's 10km Marathon Swimming on day twelve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Odaiba Marine Park on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Team GB's Alice Dearing at the Tokyo 2020 Games- the first Black female swimmer to represent the team at Olympic level (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Dearing used to relax – chemically straighten – her hair, which made it easier to keep braided locks under normal swimming caps, but went back to natural hair after the encouragement of a friend, and found her natural hair easier to manage. She did, however, keep her hair braided under normal-sized caps again for Tokyo 2020.

She said there were "difficult parts" during the transition but believes "the effort's worth it at the end."

Dearing said she had faced micro-aggressions over her hair but added: "I never really looked too deep into them – I didn't want myself to feel down about my hair. I'm really proud of who I am."

Watch: World Afro Day's inaugural event in 2017

An example of why WAD is needed is because of a lack of understanding around the challenges people with Afros face.

At the end of June, it emerged that Soul Cap, a company that designs larger swimming caps made to accommodate the thickness and volume of other hair textures, would not be allowed at the Olympics.

The justification given by FINA – the international federation for competitions in water sports – was that elite athletes "don’t require caps of such size", and that they do not "follow the natural form of the head".

After the ensuing uproar, FINA said it was "reviewing the situation."

Soul Cap is banned from the Olympics after FINAs decision.
Soul Cap was banned from the Olympics after FINAs decision. (Luke Hutson Flynn)

In a statement, Soul Cap founders Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed said: "How do we achieve participation and representation in the world of competition swimmers, if the governing body stops suitable swimwear being available to those who are underrepresented?"

Dearing said: "It was really difficult and disappointing news... hopefully, we will see a positive change soon."

In a statement, FINA said it understood "the importance of inclusivity and representation".

World Afro Day is being supported by Pantene for the first time this year.

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