Word by Jaquelin Bautista and Kia Thomas
In April 2018, a black Alabama woman lost a job offer for refusing to cut her dreadlocks. In December 2018, a varsity wrestler at Buena Regional High School had his dreadlocks cut off because they did not comply with league regulations.In 2017, the army reversed a ban on (black) servicemen and women wearing dreadlocks and braids. In January 2019, former news anchor at WJTV, Brittany Noble, lost her job after filing discrimination complaints about being told her hair was unprofessional, stating “natural hair [was] unprofessional and the equivalent to [sic] throwing on a baseball cap to go to the grocery store.”
These are just a few of the recent cases of hair discrimination in the United States. On February 18, the New York City Commission on Human Rights was the first to set legal protection for hair. The commission released new guidelines that protect the black community in New York City against racial discrimination based on hair type or style. The guidelines encourage New Yorkers to embrace their natural hair. This change in law was prompted by the investigation at two Bronx businesses; a Morris Park medical facility and a Morrisania nonprofit organization. Moreover, the investigations at a hair salon in the Upper East Side and a restaurant in Queens, as reported by the New York Times.
Hair discrimination refers to a specific form of anti-black racism based in physical appearance. Note that hair discrimination based on race does not target people based on the objective cleanliness, tidiness or the appearance of their hair. This type of discrimination requires the offender to assume a certain appearance is acceptable while the other is not. Black people, often women, experience discrimination and/or racism when they wear their hair in ways that do not conform to the Western beauty ideal, i.e.: straight, long, loose and light. Black women are famously ridiculed for wearing weaves or extensions, however, natural hair is also seen as outlandish, inappropriate, and unprofessional.
These ideals form in direct opposition to white people’s perceived, stereotypical ideas about black appearance. In turn, those targeted by racist individuals, superiors, agents, landlords, teachers, politicians, etc. are not only humiliated, but denied access to jobs, housing, education and the like, simply for appearing too black for comfort.
The new guidelines provide legal resources for victims of harassment and punishment, which include being fired due to the style or texture of their hair. In fact, the City Commission can charge penalties up to $250,000 for anyone found guilty of violating the guidelines. Additionally, the commission can demand internal policy changes as well as enforce rehiring processes at offending establishments. The new law was argued for on the premise that there is a connection between one’s racial, ethnic, or cultural identity and their hair – allowing for the hair to be protected by the City Human Rights Laws.
In 2016, “The ‘Good Hair’ study,” by Perception Institute, found that most people have negative views of natural hair. People experience hair discrimination at work, school, and in many public spaces. Ashanti Dunlop, a sophomore at The City College of New York, describes how wearing her afro would cause people to “say passive aggressive things like ‘your hair looks crazy.’” Additionally, she once experienced a teacher calling her bandana “durag gang swag.” Comments like these can cause people to “internalize shame” and to feel “bad about being black,” according to clinical psychologist Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward.
Ewuresi Kwajan, a freshman, exclaims that the new law will allow her to “feel comfortable to present [her] hair how it is naturally.” She says she will feel less inclined to have her hair straight, as is so often expected from black women. Traditional policies that regulate hair are based on “racist standards of appearance” and reinforce the notion that “black hairstyles are unprofessional or improper,” says Carmelyn P. Malalis, the commissioner and chairwoman of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Freshman Florence Amoussou adds that “no one should have a say in what women do with their bodies.”
Harlem resident Destiny Tompkins’ experience with hair discrimination went viral in 2017. After being pulled aside during her shift at Banana Republic, Destiny’s supervisor informed her she would not appear on the schedule until she took out her box braids, a popular hair extension style for black women. They were deemed “not Banana Republic appropriate” and “too urban” for the brand. Destiny took to social media to post about her experience, standing up for her right to wear her hair the way black women have for centuries. The post immediately went viral. Banana Republic issued an apology and terminated the offending manager soon after.
Destiny’s situation gained enough traction to be cited in the footnotes of the NYC Commission statement against race-based hair discrimination. I had the privilege of watching Destiny’s experience unfold in real-time, from the time she posted the incident on Facebook, to it going viral, until she ended up suing Banana Republic for $1 million. To see headlines about her case amazed me, not only because I had known her for years, but because her experience spoke to my own, and I knew my own spoke to many. Destiny’s suit against Banana Republic reached a dismissal in 2018, and she could not comment on the details of the case when contacted.
As a child, I despised my tight, 4C curls and prayed for a looser curl pattern, like my mother’s. I had heard the adjective “nappy” all my life, used to describe the strength needed to put a comb through my hair. The harder they pulled, the less desirable your hair. Like millions of my peers, I wore a perm and straightened my hair often. It seemed like a necessary burden, the consequence of being born so black. I have heard countless similar stories from others.
The concept of agency must be incorporated by the reader, and one must remember that a black woman does not always hate herself because she chooses to wear weaves, wigs, or change her hair texture. Truly, many of these expressions stand integral to parts of black culture. The problem lies in the expectation of black people to conform their hair to match Western beauty ideals.
The consequences of hair discrimination run deeper than having to find another job or being forced to straighten your hair. Creating policies that target the texture of a demographic’s hair, or the styles associated with their cultural representation, is a direct and pervasive form of anti-black racism.
The trauma associated with one’s culture being denigrated to an outlandish, inappropriate and/or ugly outlier can profoundly affect the trajectory of a person’s life and sense of self. Aireial Mack, who works at LA Fitness in Slidell, Louisiana, received a text message from her boss after complaining about a hostile and racist work environment. It read, “Hey, this is Blake, just doing a follow up with you. We took you off the schedule because your hair doesn’t meet LA FITNESS STANDARDS in a fro. We want a classy appearance we don’t want to leak off a n***** style.”
Mack said the comments “broke” her, that she “walked in confident and left out a whole other way. [She] left out broken.” Hair discrimination, like any other form of prejudice, makes its deepest impact in the messages we send to the people in our society. This impact shines light on the concentrated effort to devalue blackness in every representation. The perpetuation, protection, and protest of race-based hair discrimination depends on society’s racist attitude towards black people and the racism imbedded within our institutions.
Dedication to upholding western beauty standards means that in certain fashion industries, anti-black hair discrimination remains rampant. In an industry where physical appearance is the focus of one’s career, the standards upheld cater to dominant beauty ideals, and black representations of beauty get shunned. Preferring to remain anonymous, a young black model from 111th and Morningside Drive spoke about her experience modeling for Calvin Klein.
“I got casted for Calvin Klein with my [box] braids and they ended up asking if all of it was real. I said no, and they were like, ‘we were hoping it was long and we could take it out and it would fall nicely on your shoulders.’ They pressed me about the texture of it, what kind of curls I have, and finally asked for me to take them out.” After the experience, the model continued to defy the expectations of her field by wearing her hair the way she wanted. “I continued to get braids every summer because I’d get casted with them. I had agents, even black male agents, yell at me for coming to castings with braids because they considered it ‘coming to a casting unprepared.’”
Black models have made tremendous strides in fashion and created spaces in an industry that excluded them for years. Yet, they still suffer in a field where professional hairdressers do not know how to handle black hair. The most famous black models have been undercut by ignorant hairdressers, who did not feel obligated to learn how to work with a spectrum of textures.
The previous interviewee recalled an incident when her hair became damaged after hairdressers refused to listen to her. “I’ve had two white hairdressers work on my hair at once and attempt to flatiron it while it was wet. Even after I explained that it was going to damage my hair, they spoke down to me and said ‘Oh honey, you have nothing to worry about. We’re professionals.’ That fucked up a huge part of my hair pattern for a minute.” These hairdressers could have impacted the model’s career for a long time, if not forever, due to simple carelessness and a too-eager willingness to dismiss a black woman’s concerns about her own head.
The change in law would not have been possible without the efforts of parents, whose children were targeted for their hair at school. The efforts of educators and activists such as Noliwe Rooks, whose career focused on racial connotations in beauty and fashion. Additionally the work of people like Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward, who also directed “Black to Natural,” a documentary about how black hairstyles have been used in discrimination. Moving forward, activists such as Anthony Beckford hope that institutions and educators will begin holding cultural diversity training to reduce the unequal treatment of black people and demolish racist beauty standards.