It’s been five years since I went completely natural. I relied on chemicals (aka relaxers) and hot tools to straighten my hair (especially without a heat protective product) for so long. When I was growing up, there was no debating about hair. I was either doing the straight style or...the straight style. Every event needed a blowout, and if I saw any hint of a curl, I used a straightener immediately. But after spending six months overseas and running out of hair products catered to my hair texture, I began leaving it in its natural state—curls and all. Soon enough, I saw a wave of curls, coils and kinks representation in the media like never before and I vowed then that I would embrace my natural hair in every setting.
While the natural hair movement was gaining momentum, there was still pushback to leave straightening your hair the norm when it came to staying professional. (There was and still are moments when people suggests I do this). But seeing the representation play out and how many have embraced their natural hair despite the critiques (especially in mostly white spaces), gave me the motivation to never straighten my hair to be seen as professional, educated or appropriate for an interview, event or career workshop. To my knowledge, my hair never played a factor when it came to opportunities or being penalized or treated differently (perhaps I’m naïve). Unfortunately, many aren’t so lucky. This is hair discrimination, and here’s why it’s so important to know about it.
What is Hair Discrimination?
Hair discrimination is the unjust social and economic treatment of a marginalized culture by the dominant culture based on hair, which, in a country riddled with centuries of anti-Black racism (looking at you, America), typically refers to afro-textured hair. The colonial misperception that natural Black and Afro-textured hair are “other,” “nappy,” “kinky” and “inappropriate,” still permeates modern workplaces, schools and institutions when people demonstrate negative bias against hairstyles (i.e. protective styles—braids, locs, twists and knots) or texture (i.e. afros, curls, etc.) in favor of Euro-centric, white hairstyles and texture.
What Are the Real-Life Impacts of Hair Discrimination?
It Affects Job and Earning Potential
On the individual level, the effects of hair discrimination can be catastrophic, resulting in loss of opportunities, alienation and overall respect—just look at Chasity Jones, who lost a job offer back in 2010 because she wouldn’t cut her locs. The case went to the Supreme Court but was dismissed for not violating any rights.
But Jones is not alone. According to a 2019 study conducted by Dove, Black women are “1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair” and “3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.” This translates to massive economic loss over a lifetime and generations, making hair discrimination another powerful tenet of systemic racism.
But it’s also emotionally devastating. That same Dove study found 80 percent of Black women “felt they needed to switch hairstyles to align with more conservative standards in order to fit in at work.” Imagine that. Imagine having to change a part of yourself to fit someone else’s idea of professionalism because you fear you can lose your job, be looked down on or suffer from microaggressions that make you feel like an outsider. (Yes, saying ‘You change your hair again?’ ‘That’s not your hair.’ ‘Can I touch it?’ is not something you want to hear every day.)
It Affects Children
But this doesn’t only take a toll in the workplace. Children are often put into detention, permitted to return back to school or worst expelled for wearing certain hairstyles. Just in 2019, DeAndre Arnold was suspended and was prohibited to attend prom and graduation because of his locs. In 2018, high school athlete Andrew Johnson was forced to cut his locs or forfeit a championship match. The video of the coach cutting his locs sent the internet into a frenzy and a desire for change.
It Affects You
Just like white supremacy, while its impact on everyday life might seem benign, hair discrimination has the power to promote and shift beauty ideals silently and right under our feet. Ask yourself why does our society favor fine, straight hair? Why is there a $591 million dollar business in chemically straightening hair? Hair discrimination affects BIPOC communities, yes, but it also changes how non-BIPOC people decide how to wear their hair and see beauty.
The Significance of the Natural Hair Movement
This is why the reemergence of the natural hair movement for Black and Brown individuals is so powerful and refreshing. The movement reminds these communities to embrace their hair and demand new ideals and norms of beauty. Now, you can walk the haircare aisle and see brands catered to natural hair like Briogeo, Eden Bodyworks and Kinky Curly, to name a few. Plus, the representation has skyrocketed. Celebs like Lupita Nyongo’o, Gabrielle Union and Viola Davis are highlighting their hair on-and-off screen to move the discussion forward that natural hair movement is here to stay.
However, the Black community, specifically Black women, continue to pay a price for embracing their natural hair. In a 2020 study by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Black women with natural hairstyles were found less likely to get job interviews than white women and Black women with straight hair. So while people with natural hair are ready to embrace their styles and texture, there’s still a roadblock to being accepted into professional (mostly white) spaces. A way of expressing yourself has turned into a political fight that’s brought out a bill that wants to end hair discrimination in all 50 states. Enter: The Crown Act.
What's the Crown Act?
The CROWN Act (short for The “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” law) is a law to end hair discrimination based on hairstyle or texture. It also requires jobs and schools to update any policies put in place that use biased language that focuses on a person’s appearance.
The law was created in 2019 by Dove and other organizations like Color of Change, National Urban League and Western Center on Law & Poverty. Known as the CROWN Coalition, they’ve come together to end hair discrimination by calling on legislators and conducting studies, like the ones mentioned above. Celebrities like Gabrielle Union and Keke Palmer have even teamed up with the Coalition to raise more awareness on the issue.
So far seven states (California, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Colorado, Virginia and Maryland) made hair discrimination illegal. California was the first state to pass the act in the California Fair Employment Housing Act and the California Education Code. New York City followed by issuing a penalty if any hair discrimination occurs.
While it’s a small number, it’s a start. Thankfully, 22 states are following their lead by introducing their own bills inspired by The CROWN Act. But that still leaves another 21 states either not pushing to make a change or still fighting for a bill to be brought to the table.
OK, so what can I do?
If speaking up and addressing discrimination—aimed at you or another—head-on doesn’t seem plausible, reach out to your boss, HR or a person in authority that you feel comfortable voicing your concerns with. If the opportunity arises, volunteer to be at the forefront of forging guidelines and measures to help make your place of work, study or community inclusive and non-discriminatory.
You can also sign The CROWN Act petition to end hair discrimination and share it with others. The organization also provides information for contacting your local representative.
Finally, celebrate your natural hair. While many don’t have the privilege of leaving a job, school or place that is discriminatory (even subtly), we’re in a moment where the natural hair movement is in full force and there is more representation to showcase that natural hair is and was always beautiful. (Just look at Hair Love, beauty brands and celebs like Tracee Ellis Ross rocking natural hair). If someone chooses to straighten their hair, it shouldn't be because they were forced by someone or a company for their own comfort. Overall, it gives me hope to know there are laws and a movement in progress to end this incorrect, racist behavior.