Ever since ninth grade, 16-year-old Aayaana Wilson felt different from fellow students in her hairstyling classes at Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute. Every mannequin head she ever braided and beautified in school had fair skin and straight hair. Tired of feeling forgotten, Aayaana spoke up in grade 11 and asked to use mannequin heads with dark skin and curly hair. Her teacher responded with resistance.
“Her first reply was, ‘do you think the school is going to buy your type of hair because you want it?’” Aayaana said. “There’s other black girls in the class, but they never spoke up either and I was confused why it was such a problem. I just wanted to do black girl hair. . . . It was very racially insensitive.”
TORONTO, ON – 01/14/18: After taking hairstyling classes since starting high school, 16-year-old Aayaana Wilson noticed something wrong. The mannequin heads students worked with were always fair-skinned with straight hair. Aayaana’s parents approached the school, leading to a quick fix to the issue. Aayaana took a picture of the very first dark-skinned, curly-haired mannequin head she ever worked with. (Bobby Hristova)
Aayaana told her mother, Lori Wilson, about the incident which led them to speak with the school. Upon approaching the school, Wilson shared the situation with East Enders Against Racism (EEAR) and received an outpouring of empathy.
“When I posted this (on Facebook), it really kind of makes you feel like you’re not alone and it goes and encourages you,” Wilson said. “I showed it to my girls and they felt very supported.” According to Aayaana, the school responded the next day. “I came into the class and I was in my seat when my teacher unlocked a cabinet,” she said. “It was full of black girl hair dolls and I was shocked because we didn’t know they had any and they were all in great condition.”
Rob MacKinnon, principal of Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, said students are pivotal in directing change within classrooms. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s hairstyling, history, literature, whatever the course is, our students need to feel represented and need to feel reflected in the content in classrooms,” MacKinnon said. “Schools work hard to make sure students feel represented in the resources that we have and sometimes we need help from the students.”
TORONTO, ON – 01/14/18: Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute added diversity to their hairstlying courses by including dark-skinned, curly-haired mannequins in their classes after grade 11 student Aayaana Wilson wanted to practice “black girl hair.” Aayaana believes if she didn’t speak up, the class would still only be using fair-skinned, straight-haired mannequins. (Bobby Hristova)
The change in Aayaana’s class and support from EEAR inspires her to become an activist in the future. “I felt supported. . . . I didn’t know there was any type of group that would stick up for our type of hair,” she said.
East Enders Against Racism has celebrated its one-year anniversary. Although they are looking back with pride, they are also looking ahead with determination. Lauren Simmons, a founding member of EEAR, says the group aims to educate more of its members in the new year. “We’re looking to work with the Toronto Public Library . . . specifically with the Pape location . . . to host workshops or talks preparing resources on bystander intervention,” Simmons said. “A lot of forms of subtle racism happen on transit or the schoolyard and we want to engage our members on how to act when it happens.”
In November 2016, a group of concerned citizens created EEAR after white supremacist posters encouraging white people to condemn multiculturalism appeared in Stan Wadlow Park. Additionally, Your Ward News, a community newsletter, spread hateful messages about the local area. To combat the intolerance in their community, the group responded with an anti-racism rally in the same park.
TORONTO, ON – 01/14/18: Colourful lawn signs found around Toronto showcase the awareness East Enders Against Racism has raised in one year. The multilingual signs add a sense of belonging to communities within the city. Their lawn sign program lets people own a sign for a minimum donation of $10. (Bobby Hristova)
Since then, EEAR has amassed approximately 2000 members online, adding magnitude to their impact on locals. After this incident, Aayaana will become one of those members. “[East Enders Against Racism] gives me more confidence,” Wilson said. “There are more people that think like I do and if there are more people that stand up, there will be a change,” she said.