Let’s be factual; Most black women with natural hair have experienced situations where they have been questioned as per the way the wear their hair. If you are a black woman, you have probably experienced this. If you haven’t, you probably know someone who has.
Many black women report been told on a number of occasions not to turn up for work with their natural hair. Some are encouraged to wear a weave to disguise their afro hair, made to feel that their natural hair gives the impression of unprofessionalism.
I have heard reports of women who had their hair styled in cornrows and who were asked quite blatantly how long it would be before their hair was back to normal. And the sad thing is that most women of colour who are under such scrutiny do not want their hair to be the cause of problems at work. Taken aback but conforming, they often change their hairstyle to more ‘suitable’ one.
They wear weaves so that their hair looks more like their colleagues’. They stretch and straighten their natural curls. They wear wigs. They do what they must to fit in.
Why is this happening?
Employers do have a right to apply dress codes in the workplace, but the question is; should this dress code extend to hair grooming?
It is accepted widely that employers who forbid afros in the workplace run the risk of being called discriminatory against their black employees, and the average person on the street would most likely agree with you that such employers need to demonstrably justify that policy in relation to the job in question. That same average person would perhaps agree that it is justifiable if such grooming policies are made for health and safety reasons. But, how do such employers justify that position if Caucasian employees with curls are allowed to wear their hair natural, and the black employees aren’t allowed to.
Where employers do not have dress codes in place, other co-employees and bosses to black women are often critical or ridiculing of their natural afros. In a bid to fit in and not wanting to be subjected to such ridiculing, these women change their hairstyles to fit in.
This is such a colossal shame in this day and age, not on the part of the women who are forced to change their natural hairstyles to more acceptable ones, but on the part of employers who enforce anti-black hair dress codes, and on the part of colleagues who shame black women into changing their natural hair styles.
It’s not just a matter of “it’s just hair”
Many white people do not understand the emotional connection that a black person has to their hair, dismissing everything with a wave of the hand and with the saying that "it's just hair".
Well, it’s not "just hair".
Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
Remember when a US federal court once ruled it legal for employers to ban dreadlocks?
Remember that young girls in middle schools in the US and in the UK still repeatedly get suspended for wearing their natural hair, with the claim that it distracts other students.
Remember that kids in predominately white neighbourhoods still stare and point when they see a young black girl wearing her natural afro hair.
There's more to black hair than what simply meets the eye. For most of us, our hair is met with many changes as we go through life. Some of us are finally transitioning our chemically relaxed or permed hair. Some of us are strengthening our strands after years of heat damage caused by constantly straightening our hair. Some of us have decided to finally embrace our natural hair and everything that comes with it.
Changing your hair and choosing to wear it natural can, however, mean dealing with mindless questions, blank stares, and micro aggressions in the office. I have heard instances of black women who had always worn wigs or weaves going to the workplace with their natural hairs and everyone in the office awkwardly avoiding eye contact or treating the woman like a curious object, touching her natural hair without permission.
In corporate Europe where only a handful of black people are CEOs in huge companies, it is hard to celebrate (or even acknowledge) black hair. Yes, it is 2021 and we live in a progressive world, yet wearing afro hair in the corporate world is still complex, challenging and isolating.
I am hoping that a time will come when black women will not be discriminated against or judged because of the way we choose to wear our hair, and when we all realise that black hair, in every setting (formal or informal) represents power, fight, resistance, love, and freedom.
The laws around hair discrimination
In the last couple of years, several states in the United States have taken steps to push schools and employers into dismantling a culture of discrimination experienced by black women and men who continue to experience explicit or implicit pressures to conform to the ‘norm’ when it comes to hair styles.
For example, states such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee, and New Jersey have proposed legislation to clearly ban race-based hair discrimination. However, California and New York were the first two states to sign legislation into law regarding this.
California led the pack with the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act. This law bans discrimination based on hair texture and style by extending protection for both categories under the California Education Code and the FEHA. The CROWN Act was signed into law in July 2019, and New York City and New Jersey subsequently adopted similar versions of this bill.
The case is a little different in the UK.
In the UK, workplace discrimination on the basis of religion, race or gender is illegal. The lines, however are blurred when it comes to racial discrimination related to hair. There is no specific law prohibiting discrimination based on hair. For this reason, women are treated unfavourably because of their natural hair. Bias towards black women's natural hair takes many forms such as being deemed unprofessional or untidy, and inappropriate comments about cultural hairstyles. It may also take the form of a more explicit discrimination like deciding not to hire a black woman because of her natural hair.
Education is important
Most of us wear our hair in braids, dreadlocks, twist, and Afros not because of some hair fad, but because these styles are crucial for our hair texture. Each work-related discriminatory event, created by a lack of basic knowledge of black hair, offers an opportunity for us to openly talk about the hair of women of colour.
If the people committing these acts of discrimination understood that the morphological differences of Afro-textured hair require a different kind of hair care and different hairstyles than other ethnic groups, I want to believe that future events of discrimination can be avoided.
To educate others however, you yourself first have to be educated.
The biochemical composition of black hair is similar to that of Asians and Caucasians, but it is its morphological difference in comb-ability and elasticity that causes afro hair to have different needs.
The curly nature of black hair makes it more susceptible to breakage. For example, styling tools such as brushes and combs force the curls to elongate even though the curls naturally resist, and this results in breakage. To avoid hair damage and preserve hair growth, delicate care is definitely a must.
Because black hair is naturally curly, there are just two options to keep the hair straight, either heat straightening or chemical straightening. Any of these two options damage the hair fibre severely. The way chemical straightening damages the hair is that it chemically and physically changes the hair fibre, opens up the hair shaft, and makes the hair strand very prone to damage. Relaxers also cause damage to the scalp. Heat straightening with flat irons and blow dryers, on the other hand, damages the hair by harming the hair cuticles.
Because keeping Afro-textured hair straight can be unhealthy for the hair, straightening your hair should be a choice and not a requirement.
And it is due to the fact that black hair is more prone to breakage, and cannot be easily straightened without damaging the hair that more and more black women are choosing to wear hairstyles that promote healthy hair, such as braids, dreadlocks, updos, twist, etc. These hairstyles are also called protective hairstyles, because you can wear these hairstyles for longer periods and not have to constantly manipulate your hair.
You may have been guilty in the past of telling a curly-haired girl that she looks more beautiful with a straight, sleek blowout. This is in and of itself is perfectly harmless. It, however, sends subconscious messages that straight hair is beautiful while curly hair is not.
She hears this enough times, and she starts to believe that straight white hair (like Caucasians have) is the right hair to have, and that her afro hair is substandard, and this may deeply affect her self-esteem.
It is important for us all to remember that we don’t have to conform to mainstream Eurocentric beauty ideals before we are deemed beautiful. Let’s remember that we don’t have to feel manipulated or coerced by society to straighten our hair and subjugate our true selves.
We are beautiful the way we are, afro hair and all.