Why are Irish hairdressers not trained to cut afro hair?

‘We begin to perceive our natural hair as a flaw’ says presenter Emer O’Neill

In June 2021, the UK's National Occupational Standards (NOS) ruled that all UK hairdressers must be trained in the styling of afro and textured hair types. The NOS is responsible for setting professional benchmarks of practice across a plethora of industries in the UK. It found that many hairdressing qualifications did not educate students on how to style the hair of people of colour and sought to rectify this with the implementation of new training standards.

Here in Ireland, however, hairdressers are trained in accordance with the standards of the individual institution they attend. Thus, training can be inconsistent and, more often than not, afro and textured-hair types do not make it on to the curriculum. Inadvertently, "white hair only" seems to be the message.

“I didn’t wear my natural afro until I was the age of 27,” says Emer O’Neill, author, activist and co-host of RTÉ’s Today show. “I was brainwashed to think that afro hair is messy, untidy and unprofessional. I didn’t feel beautiful. I didn’t feel confident.”

Women of colour are told that their hair is ugly; that the afro is a mass of frizz, with kinks that form an unkempt nest. Coarse, nappy and fuzzy to the touch, it apparently juts out from the scalp in the most inelegant way.


Our hair seems to provoke offensive commentary; racialised insults are casually delivered with a smile

This damaging narrative has been internalised by so many black women, including myself. We begin to perceive our natural hair as a flaw, which invites uncomfortable petting rituals by others blessed with silken strands. A bizarre compulsion drives them to feel the physicality of our difference between their fingertips, too often without consent. Our hair seems to provoke offensive commentary; racialised insults are casually delivered with a smile. Rather than call out this offensive commentary for what it is, we sometimes feel unable to do so in fear of being labelled another “overly touchy black woman”.

However, the words cut deep. Shame, hate and insecurity begin to define our relationship with our hair. So, we hide it. We straighten it, we burn it with chemicals, we slick it back, we cut it off. We do what we can to conform.

This is a familiar pattern for Amanda Adé, creative director of the Black and Irish platform: “I hated my hair and everything it represented,” she says. “For me, it was just another thing that made me different when I wanted so badly to just fit in.”

So often, a trip to a hairdresser further validates these feelings of alienation. Self-deprecating thoughts are reaffirmed by a professional who immediately becomes anxiety-ridden by the thought of cutting the natural hair of a woman of colour. The staff often gather round to try to make sense of the situation. It feels as if our afro is the main act in some sort of dystopian freak show held within the confines of the local hair salon.

“Having afro hair in Ireland usually means you don’t get the luxury of going to salons. I know that 99.9 per cent of hairdressers will be unable to do my hair,” says O’ Neill. “I don’t recall any enjoyable salon experiences that I’ve had here in Ireland. There is usually lots of gasping and grabbing at my hair. I hear ‘We’re going to have to charge extra for this’ or even ‘There is literally no one here that can do your hair, sorry,’ and I’m turned away with my tail between my legs.”

I was once told by a mainstream salon that because of my hair type they couldn't do my hair; it wasn't something that they 'did'

Irish singer-songwriters Aby Coulibaly and Shiv (Siobhan McClean) have had almost identical experiences. “A modelling agency I was signed with offered us the chance to get our hair done in a mainstream salon at a discounted price. So, I took them up on this offer and asked for an appointment, but I was told that they couldn’t do my hair type,” Coulibaly says. McClean agrees: “I was once told by a mainstream salon that because of my hair type they couldn’t do my hair; it wasn’t something that they ‘did’.”

After years of self-loathing O’Neill has learned to love her natural hair. She can be seen live on the Today Show wearing her afro with pride. “I wanted to wear my natural hair on TV. It is so important for Black-Irish people to see themselves represented on screen,” she says.

In order to ensure that O’Neill’s hair was in the hands of stylists who knew how to work with it, RTÉ enlisted afro-hair specialist Tracy Hlukaku (Traychic Designs) to show onsite hairdresser Pamela Morrissey (of Sobe Brown, Cork) how to care for the presenter’s natural hair, a move that O’Neill was very happy about.

The absence of formal education for Irish hairdressers in afro and textured hair is a problem that must be solved at the top of the industry. How can Irish hairdressers be expected to do something they were never trained for? Women of colour are not expecting every member of staff in a hair salon to be an expert in afro hair, but at least one hairdresser with the appropriate skills is only fair.

Despite the intricate styling practices and chemical techniques that take place every day in an average hair salon, afro hair seems to be a step too far. “Your hair is the problem” is the message women of colour are receiving. The absence of any professional educational standards in afro hair implies that our hair isn’t even on the agenda.

Jenni Crawford from Kazumi salon in Dublin says hairdressers want to be trained. "Education has gotten lazy. That is the problem. Hairdressers want to learn, they want to diversify their skillset, they want to evolve; it's part of what we do. The education is just not there for them."

The National Hairdressing Apprenticeship is responsible for setting the curriculum for many trainee hairdressers in colleges and institutions across the country, but does not currently educate on afro hair. "Salons really want to be able to fulfil the needs of their communities. They want to do better. It's not just lip service," says Margaret O' Rourke Doherty, chief executive of the Irish Hair and Beauty Confederation and chairwoman of the Consortium Steering Group for the National Hairdressing Apprenticeship. "This is something that needs to be implemented, not just considered. We are currently sourcing trainers to deliver the appropriate training throughout 2022."

The Irish City & Guilds apprenticeship complies with UK guidelines. A spokesperson said: “At City & Guilds we understand how important it is that our products and services meet the needs of the multicultural society we all live and work in. All learners complete a coursework and theoretical study on how to work with all hair types and are also required to complete practical training with three out of the four hair types of their choice, as defined by the regulatory body Habia.”

A number of hair salons did not respond to a request for comment.

Steps are being taken to make Irish hairdressing more inclusive and this, of course, is encouraging. However, until all educational bodies offer training in afro and textured hair, the problem remains: the services currently offered by hair salons are not reflective of their customers, or Irish society in general.

“We have a long way to go when it comes to afro hair in Ireland,” O’Neill says, “but there is progress happening. I want to be able to go to a hairdresser and get my hair done with my daughter. Right now this is something she could do, but I couldn’t. Hopefully when she gets a little bit older, that won’t be the case.”