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Black Women Hair: We’re Still Dealing with Race-Based Hair Discrimination

Beautiful African Woman Profile, Studio Shot
Natural Hair Braided Style

Even though the natural hair movement is thriving, Black women (and men) are still dealing with pushback against natural and protective styles.

Afros are deemed “political.” Dreadlocks are “too messy” for work. Black women can’t even sport their natural curls without being called “unprofessional.”

Why are people so offended by Black hair?

Like so many issues in America, the answer lies deep in our history. Discrimination against Black hair is part of America’s legacy of racism, going back to slavery.

Consider that it’s still legal in most states to fire (or refuse to hire) someone for having the “wrong” hairstyle. And white people are still using coded language like “urban” and “unkempt” to describe Black hairstyles that make them uncomfortable.

The dehumanization of Black hair

Understanding the controversial history of Black hair in America requires going back to the days of slavery.

In many African tribes, hair was significant, used to signify things like social status, age, and even occupation. The colonizers who ripped Africans away from their homelands routinely shaved their heads before forcing them onto slave ships, in effect erasing their identities—at least symbolically.

In the colonies, enslaved people had no choice but to make do with whatever they could find to care for their hair. They were typically limited to just one day a week (usually Sunday) to tend to their hair. This is how the ritual of “wash day” was born, which is still common today.

Despite attempts to erase their history and traditions, enslaved people continued using braids and head wraps to protect their hair and scalp from the elements.

In the 1700s, enslaved women who worked in the “big house” often emulated the hairstyles of their enslavers or wore wigs to cover up their kinky hair.

In New Orleans, Creole women of color, many of whom were affluent and mixed race, often wore elaborate natural hair styles. White women found these “displays” threatening, prompting the city to pass Tignon Laws requiring Black women to cover their hair.

The headwraps were meant to indicate that a person was part of the slave class, despite the fact that many of these women were free. Creole women responded to the oppressive new rules by wearing beautiful and colorful head scarves with intricate designs—fashions that are still worn to this day.

The struggle to meet white beauty standards

Decade after decade, African Americans have been forced to defend their hairstyles, and their humanity. In schools and in workplaces, in the military and police departments, in professional sports and politics, Black hairstyles have been mocked, penalized, or flat out criminalized.

Black women in particular have faced incredible pressure to meet white beauty standards—enduring tortuous hot combs, chemical hair relaxers, and skin lighteners just to be accepted.

Conforming to white beauty standards has often been a means of survival for Black women. Historically, they’ve been forced to choose between staying true to who they are or conform to white beauty standards in order to be socially accepted and to advance politically and economically.

Shot of young african woman working in her office.

How Black hair became a workplace issue

The 1960s ushered in the “Black Is Beautiful” movement, which saw a resurgence of natural hair and a celebration of natural skin and facial features. Activist Angela Davis rebelled against Eurocentric beauty standards by sporting an afro, and James Brown’s “Say It Loud!” became an anthem for Black pride.

In 1976, a Black man won the first natural hair discrimination case (Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance) after suing his employer for bias against afros. Despite this victory for the natural hair movement, the social pressure to conform to white standards of beauty still impacts the hair grooming decisions of too many Black women and men.

Today, it’s still legal for employers in most states to fire (or refuse to hire) someone for having dreadlocks or other “unacceptable” hairstyles. The courts have denied its race-based discrimination, claiming that only “fixed” features like skin color define race.

Several states have responded by passing laws to protect Black hairstyles. California was the first to pass the Crown Act, banning race-based hair discrimination in workplaces, schools, and housing.

Ending race-based hair discrimination

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t go far enough by explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on specific features like hairstyles, the movement to end hair discrimination is gaining traction.

Black women and men are refusing to accept racist standards of beauty, especially at work and in schools.

In 2018, Chastity Jones, a Black woman, brought a case against her employer after they rescinded a job offer because she refused to cut off her dreadlocks. The case was dismissed in the lower courts, but it sent a clear message that Black Americans are done tolerating racial discrimination.

Whether a Black woman wants to relax her hair, wear box braids, rock an afro, or wear a wig or weave, it should be her choice.

Hair does not determine a person’s worth or goodness. Nor does it impact their ability to do their job or serve in leadership roles. But it is an important form of self-expression. For some, it goes even deeper. It’s a connection to their ancestors.

It’s long past time to end race-based hair discrimination.

Want more great content?

Listen to Edges, a storytelling podcast series where host Shantae Howell invites friends, family and other folks in the Black community to share their "hair x mental health" stories as she unpacks her own (ongoing) identity crisis.


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