When This Morning presenter Eamonn Holmes told Dr Zoe Williams that her hair reminded him ‘of an alpaca’ on live TV, Black women collectively rolled their eyes.
Holmes went on to say that ‘you just want to pet it’, in an awkward exchange that people have identified as a ‘microaggression’.
Holmes has since tweeted an apology for his comments: ‘If my attempt at being humorous with my friend @DrZoeWilliams was misjudged I am mortified and humbly apologise to anyone who was offended.’
The apology will be appreciated by many because – and it is surprising that this still has to be said – comparing a Black woman’s hair to animal fur is problematic, and neither funny nor harmless.
A study earlier this year found that Black people experience ‘racial trauma’ because of frequent Afro hair discrimination.
At least 93% of Black people with Afro hair in the UK have experienced microaggressions related to their hair, and 52% say discrimination against their hair has negatively affected their self-esteem or mental health.
So, describing a Black woman’s hair as animal fur and saying that you would like to ‘pet’ it, contributes to this damaging trend, and some have said that the comparison was both offensive and ‘dehumanising’.
‘Eamonn Holmes’ comments were not only insensitive and unfunny but, more worryingly, they constituted a form of racism,’ Darain Faraz, co-founder of professional diversity organisation People Like Us, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘We have heard of countless examples of similar “jokey” interactions like this taking place in people’s workplace – whether it’s about turbans, hair or skin, it can be so hard for ethnic minorities to navigate – comments like these are both damaging and problematic and must stop.
‘I’m not sure that he would have made a similar comment to a white guest; its condescending and offensive and highlights the realities faced by people of colour every day in the workplace. This Morning has a huge audience, this type of “normalisation” is unhelpful in the extreme.’
It can be difficult to see why comments about Black hair can be so damaging when they are focused on something so seemingly superficial. But Afro hair is political. Black people are punished and excluded from certain spaces because of the way their hair grows naturally on their heads.
The fight against hair discrimination – such as the introduction of the Halo Code which pledges to protect natural hairstyles in workplaces – is ongoing, so offensive comments about Black hair can’t be taken lightly.
‘Comments like this are really offensive because it’s our natural hair, and we can’t change its texture,’ says Keshia East, natural hair blogger and influencer.
‘Comparing a human’s natural hair to an animal’s in a derogatory way is just wrong, yet we face these comments daily.
‘Hair is a sensitive topic for Black and mixed-race women as a lot of us still struggle with how to manage it, along with a lack of diversity in products in mainstream stores – so it’s like twisting the knife.’
Keshia adds that Black women already feel pressure to conform to European beauty standards, particularly in professional spaces.
‘It can be really damaging to our self esteem,’ she adds. ‘Quite frankly, negative conversations around our hair can be exhausting, as we already face so many other challenges.’
Shereen Daniels, advocate for anti-racism in business and managing director of HR rewired, says there is something about Afro hair that is seen as ‘fair game’.
‘Derogatory attitudes shaped by Western European standards of beauty, have meant we are forever having to explain and justify the texture of our hair, the way we choose to style it and fend off inappropriate touching of our hair, often without our permission,’ Shereen tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Seeing Eamonn and Ruth laugh and smile like that shows how far we still have to go. For anyone who claims this he was paying her a compliment, they are gaslighting.
‘Children and adults are still victims of hair discrimination, non-Black people feeling that our hair is something that gives them the right to comment on, make fun of just because we are different.
‘ITV have recently announced the formation of their Cultural Advisory Council. One of the first agenda items should be how they educate their presenters, followed by signing up to the Halo Code; a campaign pledge with schools and businesses voluntarily signing up to, that ensures Black people have the “freedom and security to wear all afro-hairstyles without restriction or judgment”.’
Sadly, much of the response to the interaction online has centred around Dr Williams’ reaction to the comments.
‘Why did she laugh. It’s not funny,’ asks one person on Twitter.
‘Dr Zoe Williams should of set him straight [sic],’ said another.
In the clip, Dr Williams fluffs her hair and laughs, before jabbing her pen at the camera and saying, ‘don’t touch my hair’, with a smile.
It is a reaction that many Black people will recognise. Although Dr Williams has yet to comment on how she feels about the comments, it is not unusual for Black people to feel pressured to smile and laugh off instances of racism and discrimination, particularly in professional settings.
‘Maybe because she’s uncomfortable??’ Wrote one woman on Twitter in response to a question asking why Dr Williams laughed.
‘It’s not nice experiencing microaggressions on live national TV. If she responded now they would all call her angry and aggressive.’
‘This wasn’t “laughter”,’ another identifies. ‘Look at her facial expression, she’s not truly laughing, it’s fake civility. I don’t blame her for wanting to get out of there ASAP.’
Better awareness of the damaging nature of hair discrimination may be what is needed to help prevent Black people being put in these difficult situations, or dealing with undue scrutiny about how they choose to style their hair.
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