When your cosmetics make others ill

Student kicked out of class because of her hair product?

This article got flagged up on Facebook: an African-American schoolgirl was kicked out of class by a white teacher in Seattle because her hair was “sickening” because of the hair product the girl used. It looks like some people are trying to make a race issue out of it when it seems to be more of a health issue (more: Afrobella):

The child’s father, Charles Mudede, said “he had a lot of questions when his daughter, the only black child in her advanced-placement class, came home from school last month and announced her teacher made her leave the classroom because the girl’s hair was making the teacher sick.”

The father further explained that the school has not communicated with them to explain what is so appalling about his child’s hair. Therefore, he is reluctant to send her back to school.

Mudede asked “why did the school seem oblivious to the racial overtones of a white teacher singling out her only black student?”

This proud father said he has raised his daughter to treasure being black and to reject temptations of straightening her hair with “products in an effort to look more like her white classmates.” …

All teachers should undergo cultural diversity training because no child should be treated that way. And if her teacher is allergic to the child’s natural hair product, a quick trip to a pharmacist will solve that problem.

This is a really ignorant statement. A “quick trip to the pharmacist” will not solve a long-term allergy or chemical sensitivity. A few years ago, a cousin of mine had multiple chemical sensitivities and it made her quite ill and very weak for a long time. We all had to change the products we put on our bodies if she was going to come round or we were going to see her. I don’t know about everyone in the family, but I stopped using spray-on deodorants and haven’t used them since.

As this is a Muslim blog and most of the people involved in the discussion were Muslims, I should point out that in Islam, women aren’t supposed to wear strong perfume when out and about anyway. Now, traditionally in Muslim countries, people wore perfumes that consisted purely of essential oils and weren’t mixed with solvents and aerosols that are meant to facilitate spraying which are in commercial perfumes nowadays. A lot of perfumes that are available today aren’t alluring at all but simply stink. A few weeks ago I was on a bus across south London and a woman was sitting a couple of rows back from me and the smell of her perfume was overpowering — I thought it must have been the infamous “Poison” from the 1980s. I kept holding my breath because I couldn’t stand to breath the stench in. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for anyone more sensitive to it than I am, but it was a mystery that she didn’t realise the effect her perfume could have on those who were confined in that space with her. (I wrote about this here and the whole post, and several others at that blog, are well worth reading.)

Perhaps this incident could have been handled a bit more sensitively, but some of those on Facebook seemed to think that the teacher was just offended by her hairstyle or should have just put up with it, although others said that they had stopped using this or that chemical on their child’s hair because it was proving disruptive. It is quite obvious that nobody was trying to make the young girl straighten her hair “like a white girl”, rather they didn’t want her to use a chemical which triggered the teacher’s allergy or chemical sensitivity. I do not think schools have the right to stop children coming in with hairstyles or headgear which are traditional to them even if they aren’t to those who run the school; they do have the right to make sure their teachers and students aren’t made ill by other people’s body or hair sprays.

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  • Actually just because something is natural doesn’t mean you can’t have an allergy or allergic reaction to it. I have no problems with artificial scents even if I can’t stand the smell but I do come out with an allergic reaction to Jasmine whether it’s in soaps, perfumes or the actual plant.

    Back to the issue the problem is that from the article it’s not clear what the teacher sickness is caused by. Yes it should have been handled more sensitively particularly as regardless of how the girl wears her hair she could still use products that cause an allergic reaction in the teacher.

    Also you have to remember that most people have very little understanding of basic science and statistical methods hence the MMR scandal.

  • Kingston People: have a look at the Afrobella article I just linked - there is a comment to it that suggests that the offending ingredient might be peanut oil.

  • Tim

    Salam alaikum,

    Wasn’t she using a product called “Organic Root Stimulator Olive Oil Moisturizing Hair Lotion” which, as its name suggests, is a moisturiser made from Olive Oil? I guess it’s an alternative to coconut oil, shea butter and sweet almond oil that are more commonly used. Hardly a heavy-weight cosmetic.

    What next? That Muslim girl can’t come to class because she’s wearing a hijab and I have a nylon allergy? Or teacher can’t come to class between April and May because he has hay fever? Or dad won’t change his baby daughter’s nappy because it makes him puke?

    The point for me here is that the girl is eight years old. It really is up to the adult to take responsible steps towards dealing with her allergies. If opening a window doesn’t help, then yes, a trip to the pharmacist may well be in order. But you don’t send the child out of class.

    But Allah knows best.

  • Tim

    Though, yes you’re right, the product does contain peanut oil, plus a load of other ingredients that don’t make it sound very organic - Trimonium Methosulfate anyone? .-= Tim´s last blog ..Women and Children =-.

  • Mitsurugi

    It’s a shame that an eight year old child would feel singled out by her teacher because of her hair. Even more regrettable is the introduction of race consciousness and separation into children in their formative years. Incidentally, the wearing of perfume in public is widely considered anti-social behaviour in Japan.

  • Helen

    I got the impression that the “quick trip to the pharmacist” meant that the writer thought the parents should have bought another hair product for their child, not that the teacher should have taken antihistamines or something.

  • africana

    “the wearing of perfume in public is widely considered anti-social behaviour in Japan.”

    assalamu alaikum, that’s interesting. completely agree with yusuf on overpowering scents. i can’t stand the comercial scents myself they’re terribly clone like.i think the perfume tells alot about a person and might be part of the reason for women being forbidden from wearing them in public.

  • Salaam Alaikum,

    Here’s another good link about the racial aspect of this story:

    http://www.racialicious.com/2010/06/09/white-teacher-kicks-out-black-student-over-hair-care-product/ .-= Safiya Outlines´s last blog ..Girl you know it’s true – Updated =-.

  • Greengrass3

    Salaam Mtthew/Yusuf

    Over several years now the general guidance to schools with regard to emotional literacy has not had the kind of impact we would have hoped for. Whilst students can present challenging behaviour, there is little in the training of teachers - particularly post graduate teacher training - to educate these adults on understanding the range or limitations of their own emotional intelligence. Hence the above dispiriting post highlighting the emotional illiteracy of an educator. We are supposed to know better. But without it being recognised as a professional development pre-requisite, students will remain vulnerable to the baggage both conscious and unconscious of those they are supposed to look to for guidance. Quite a sad state of affairs really, when it goes wrong.

    In recent years I have noticed a gamut of emotions from Muslim students I have worked with in reaction to Islamophobia. Often the experience is reinforced with a dollop of racism, the combination of which means they can have the most adorable but inappropriate reactions to being victims. Both genders denote an intense unease but it is perhaps only a small minority of boys who fall into misplaced bravado as a defence mechanism. Yet, the students do respond well to reprimand that challenges their seige mentality posturing - if it comes from a trusted adult who really cares about them.

    It is critical to ask young Muslims to look at the world with detachment and balance rather than disempowering themselves through victimology. To encourage them to feel empathy in order that the ugly experiences they are on the receiving end of do not leave them feeling powerless. No one could fail to empathise with the sheerness of emotions at that age anyway. Bless them!

    The revised Ofsted framework puts a higher onus on schools to have a strategic vision with regard to Equal Opportunities. It’s good news and will engender more thinking particularly with regard to inclusion.

    My honest view, as an educator, is that the system is overloaded and whilst objecting to unacceptable practice is vital - ultimately, there is only so much these institutions can do to counter societal ills.

    Whilst Muslim communites are making efforts towards a form of self responsibility we would be more enriched by further prioritising looking at ways to support Muslim youth in our own localities. Ofcourse we shouldn’t expect less of schools but it would do us no harm to expect more of ourselves, collectively.

    Lastly, I have found the biggest recurring theme from young Muslims which doesn’t cost much, is the desire just to be heard. For someone to take the time to listen.


    Ps Apologies for the rather lengthy ‘comment’…