Struggles and Perceptions of Black Women’s Natural Hair
History shows that black people have experienced almost all forms of adversity since time immemorial. Aspects such as slavery, physical torture, inadequate education, low employment opportunities, and criminal injustices have long been considered drawbacks to the plight of black people. Black women have also experienced their fair share of difficulties in the workplace and society, not just because of their color, but also their hair nature, texture, and grooming. For instance, most workplaces usually require women, especially black women, to have specific hairstyles. Their natural hair should be straightened to look ‘neat.’ None of this considers that the natural black hair is kinky, more delicate, and faces many other challenges. The issue is in the spotlight now after the recent Oscar awards incident where comedian Chris Rock’s joke about Jada Pinkett being bald led to Jada’s husband, Will Smith, going on stage and slapping the comedian with the whole world watching. It was later revealed that the bald style is because Jada suffers from Alopecia, a medical condition that leads to hair loss. The incident has prompted the world to address the challenges black women face in dealing with their hair and the societal pressure to conform to the set standards, which unfortunately also refers to the white people’s standards. This essay will discuss some of the struggles of black women’s natural hair and how it is perceived in the workplace and society.
To understand how much their natural hair means to black women, a grassroots approach is needed to probe the worldwide policing of black hair. The Black natural hair movement represents the Black descendants’ intergenerational pain, perseverance, and healing (Scott-Ward et al., 2021). Black women’s natural hair expresses their black history. Most, if not all, black people have pictures of their female ancestors donning eye-catching hairstyles such as dreadlocks, cornrows, and nicely kempt afros. The natural hair represents black women’s background, tribe, and social status. Almost every person’s identity could be learned by just looking at their hair. This may seem slightly exaggerated. Nevertheless, black history records indicate otherwise. For example, a black woman in mourning would either opt for a more subdued hairstyle or no hairstyle at all (Jahangir, 2015). Black women even had their own fine-tuned combs since natural black hair is much more delicate compared to white people’s hair.
Even after slavery was abolished in most colonized countries in 1865, black people had a new challenge to address. The need to fit in with the white people meant that they had to adjust their natural hair to match the mainstream white community. They had to smoothen their hair texture to camouflage with white people’s hair. This feat was referred to as ‘the great oppression’ due to the sheer difficulty encountered when they tried to smoothen their hair. Years went by with black people struggling to look like their white counterparts until they felt enough was enough. The afro hairstyle movement set off in the 1960s, where black people protested against the rising levels of racial segregation due to their hair, rendering them unemployable and perceived as ‘not smart enough.’ It was a sign of rebellion, pride, and empowerment (Jahangir, 2015). The one question asked by most black people, especially women, was whether they were still compelled to appropriate white culture in terms of hair grooming or was it now a choice they could make free-willed.
Having discussed the history of worldwide policing of black women’s natural hair, it is much easier to understand the struggles of their natural hair and how it is perceived in the workplace and society. Studies show that skin tone, facial appearance, and hairstyle influence how black women are treated at workplaces and in society (Kennedy, 2020). As discovered, the non-acceptance of black women’s natural hair is systemic and historical. Due to their natural hairstyle, almost every black woman has stories, experiences, and run-ins at their workplace and within their community. Their hair is considered unprofessional and does not match everyone’s hair (where everyone’s hair means white people’s hair). Hairstyles such as afro and dreadlocks are deemed wild, radical, untidy, and criminal-like, which shows that black women’s natural hair is open to stereotypical views based on nonsensical opinions.
Black women’s kinky, curly hair texture was seen as evidence of their alien nature, leading to an ideological notion of black inferiority, which justified the brutal treatment of black women at work and in their community. When black women turn up with their natural hair (non-chemically straightened or altered hairstyles), such as dreadlocks or afros, they are frequently perceived as unprofessional, hostile, rebellious, inept, criminal, or unappealing (Kennedy, 2020). Workplaces that do not allow black women to keep their natural hair often put them at a precarious disadvantage. Black women will have to spend hours preparing their hair to be more ‘presentable at work’ and more money on their hair. There are several cases of Blacks who have had employment offers withdrawn due to their hair. In the case of EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals held in 2016 permitted employers to prohibit dreadlocks throughout the recruiting process and revoke employment offers based on their hairstyle (Greene, 2016). This was after Chastity Jones, who Catastrophe Management Solutions had recruited as a customer service personnel, was forced to cut off her locks for the company to accept her. She refused to do so, which led to the termination of her employment contract with their hiring manager, citing that dreadlocks ‘tend to get messy’. (Griffin, 2019).
The black natural hair conundrum at workplaces is severe and was even classified as a civil rights issue. Up to date, the US Courts are still at crossroads on black women’s right to wear natural hair at their workplace. For more than four decades, black employees have lodged lawsuits alleging job discrimination because of their natural hair, with varied success. These judicial decisions and shifting social and cultural norms have resulted in a complicated and unclear legal position. The court system and other regulatory entities choose to sit on the fence (Griffin, 2019). Most states in the US allow job companies to conduct recruitment based on hairstyles, thus granting them the right to forego any potential employees because of their natural hair (Griffin, 2019). For black women to wear their natural hair at work, the US government, white corporates, court systems, regulatory companies, and other institutions should allow them to keep their natural hair since it does not affect their productivity. Contrary to that, it would boost their confidence at work bearing in mind that they will finally experience inclusivity in their workplaces.
Natural hair discrimination happens not only in workplaces but also in society. Reports suggest that the type of hairstyles black women wear can influence how they are treated in several social contexts (Kennedy, 2020). For instance, Black female high school and college students are three to six times more likely to be suspended or expelled due to their appearance (natural hair) (Henderson & Wyatt Bourgeois, 2021). Natural black women’s hair continues to be criminalized even in this informed century. Further, black women have also been verbally teased and abused by their peers solely because of their natural hair (Onnie Rogers et al., 2021). Black girls, in particular, are often targets of hair-based discrimination. It is undoubtedly discriminatory, baseless, and illegal to penalize Black natural hair in the name of academic standards. Black female students suffer in these schools for what comes naturally to them, their hair. It is unfair for them to go through this, especially at a time when black people are being encouraged to embrace their color, culture, and natural hair.
While natural hairstyles are becoming increasingly accepted, more progress can be made in society to safeguard and promote women who prefer to adopt Afrocentric hairstyles (Asbeck et al., 2022). Although social and environmental pressures play a massive role in how society views black women’s natural hair, black women should not be forced to change their natural hair looks to conform to societal norms. Furthermore, dermatologists support black women embracing natural hair since having it is more appropriate than chemically treating your hair health-wise (Asbeck et al., 2022). Research has shown that all other chemically induced hairstyles are associated with health risks (Asbeck et al., 2022). Also, some black women living in white neighborhoods have struggled to embrace their natural hair as they view white hair as straight, soft, and seems easier to maintain. However, black women should learn to embrace their natural black hair due to their unique nature and beauty instead of trying to imitate other people’s looks (TEDx Talks, 2020).
Black women experience their fair share of difficulties in the workplace and society due to their natural hair. According to Black History, their hair portrays their background, tribe, social status, and many more aspects of their life, and so their social contexts should not coerce them into cutting their hair so that they can fit. Black women face many struggles both socially and at work. For example, some companies may fail to hire black women with natural hairstyles such as dreadlocks and afros. Also, black school-going females endure their fair share of mistreatment and abuse by their schools and the school administration. Their white colleagues tease them because of their strange hair, while the school administrations are always keen on suspending or expelling black female students on flimsy school dressing codes and hairstyles. It is high time black women learned to embrace their natural hair as has been since time immemorial. Moreover , corporations, business organizations, public institutions, and the judiciary system should all pull their weight to ensure black women are no longer discriminated against because of their natural hair.
Asbeck, S., Riley-Prescott, C., Glaser, E., & Tosti, A. (2022). Afro-Ethnic Hairstyling Trends, Risks, and Recommendations. Cosmetics, 9(1), 17. https://www.mdpi.com/2079-9284/9/1/17/pdf
Greene, D. W. (2016). Splitting hairs: The Eleventh Circuit’s take on workplace bans against Black women’s natural hair in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions. U. Miami L. Rev., 71, 987. https://repository.law.miami.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4514&context=umlr
Griffin, C. (2019). How natural black hair at work became a civil rights issue. JStor Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/how-natural-black-hair-at-work-became-a-civil-rights-issue/
Henderson, H., & Wyatt Bourgeois, J. (2021). Penalizing Black hair in the name of academic success is undeniably racist, unfounded, and against the law. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/how-we-rise/2021/02/23/penalizing-black-hair-in-the-name-of-academic-success-is-undeniably-racist-unfounded-and-against-the-law/
Jahangir, R. (2015, May 31). How does black hair reflect black history? BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-merseyside-31438273
Kennedy, K. (2020). My natural hair is unprofessional: The impact of Black hairstyles on perceived employment-related characteristics (Doctoral dissertation, Marquette University). https://epublications.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1580&context=theses_open
Onnie Rogers, L., Versey, H. S., & Cielto, J. (2021). “They’re always gonna notice my natural hair”: Identity, intersectionality and resistance among Black girls. Qualitative Psychology. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/H-Versey/publication/354565168_They’re_always_gonna_notice_my_natural_hair_Identity_intersectionality_and_resistance_among_Black_girls/links/6141270adabce51cf45205f4/Theyre-always-gonna-notice-my-natural-hair-Identity-intersectionality-and-resistance-among-Black-girls.pdf
Scott-Ward, G., Gupta, N., & Greene, E. (2021). Back to Natural and the Intergenerational Healing of the Natural Black Hair Movement. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 00221678211009078. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00221678211009078
TEDx Talks. (2020, 14 Jan). African Hair | LUCILLE ROIMEN | TEDxYouth@BrookhouseSchool [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/vhkzfuXl5Sk