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Don't Touch My Hair: Natural Hair Discrimination in the U.S.

What Exactly Is "Natural Hair?"

Natural hair is any person's hair that has not been altered by chemicals or straighteners. Examples of chemicals include texturizers, relaxers/perms, etc. Because hair dye can also alter the hair's state, some people also consider dyed hair as not "natural."

One major thing that most people don't know is that natural hair does not only apply to Black people. No matter the texture, anyone can be natural or not natural.

The History of Natural Hair

Pre-Colonial Africa (500 B.C- 19th Century)

Before the continent of Africa was subjected to colonization, Black hair was a symbol of status and identity. Different tribes had different hairstyles so that people were distinguished from other groups. Regarding status, a more intricate design reflected a higher societal status. Furthermore, there was a hairstyle for every occasion. According to CBC, there were hairstyles specific to soldiers, a mother about to give birth, and even for women waiting for their husbands to return from war.

Transatlantic Slave Trade (16th-19th Century)

During the slave trade of 10-12 million enslaved Africans to America, the value that Black people held of their hair was demolished. Once in slavery, Black people no longer did the intricate hairstyles that set them apart from each other-- they were all the same in the eyes of the white man. To white people, Black hair was "nappy," "dirty," and "unmanageable." All of these attributions to Black people caused them to be viewed as inferior in society. These Eurocentric beliefs spread rapidly and were used to diminish Black people's feelings and individuality.

1950's-1960's in America

During the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., Black people were challenged and ridiculed for every aspect of their being, including their hair. Up until now, they had been forced to conform to Eurocentric standards, yet this had no impact and they were still inferior to the majority. As a result, Black women and men stopped straightening and texturizing their hair. This was the beginning of the natural hair movement.

Black people chose a relatively low-maintenance hairstyle known as the afro, as a symbol of resistance to the standards. Afros gave people back the sense of community regarding their hair that had been lost to colonization. This also is most likely was where the phrase "don't touch my hair" gained popularity against the community.

What's The Deal With Natural Hair Today?

The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) makes it unlawful for a workplace to discriminate or fire someone on the basis or race, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, etc. An interesting topic arises when addressing natural hair: is discriminating against specifically Black hair considered a race thing? Could this be seen as unlawful to fire someone due to the natural state of that person's hair?

First, let's think about what it means to say "Black hair." Connotatively, Black hair is usually anything between 3b and 4c hair on the universal curl pattern chart, made by Andre Walker. White people's hair most often falls between 2a and 3a, only sometimes being a 3b.

(Curl Pattern Chart)

Breakdown of the Curl Pattern Chart:

The first row is type 2 hair. Type two hair is categorized by waves ranging from loose waves to deep waves. Type 2 hair has no curls in its majority. Type 3 hair is anything from loose curls to tight curls and is recognized by its spirals. Type 4 hair is the type most commonly associated with Black people. Type 4 hair is known as kinky hair, or extremely tight curls. As the type 4 hair progresses, it is harder to see individual curls in the hair as they are so coiled.

Looking at the structure of hair follicles by race and hair phenotypes, it simply is not possible for white people to naturally have 4 type hair. Hairstyles like locs, afros, and braids with extensions are the top ones discriminated against. White hair simply cannot hold these types of hairstyles without becoming damaged which is why we can say this is a "race thing."

When and Where is Black Hair Discriminated Against?

The answer to this question is simply "everywhere." There are more explicit forms of discrimination in schools and workplaces but more subtle forms exist everywhere.

An example of this occurred in Louisiana at a private Roman Catholic elementary school. The victim? An eleven-year-old girl. Faith Fennidy had been attending the school and wearing her hair in braids with no problem. One summer, the school updated its dress code which prohibited "extensions, clip-ins, and weaves." She was sent to her school's office and had her parents called. Her father said in a Facebook post, "How do you make a policy without even having a discussion. It's because you don't care and it's just one more barrier to entry for Black people." Fennidy's family chose to withdraw her from the school because of the incident.

If discrimination can affect girls as young as eleven, how does this affect adult women in the workplace?

Brittany Jones, a thirty-three year old woman working for a news channel is a great example. She had been working at the station for awhile, wearing her hair hot-combed and straightened which undoubtedly caused damage. After suffering damaged hair, she began wearing wigs and sew-ins which costed her a pretty penny of about $700-$800 as reported by DailyMail. Jones was then expecting a child and decided to embrace her natural hair during this time. She wore her natural hair in pulled back braids while on the air. Her boss reprimanded her by telling her that the style was "unprofessional," "shaggy and unkempt." Soon after, she was fired.

(Brittany Noble Jones, BuzzFeed News)

These are only examples of hundreds of cases where Black people are targeted for having hairstyles that fit their budget, lifestyle, and naturality!

Black Hair Myths

A big part of why Black hair is so hated in America is the lack of understanding. Most other races view Black people's hair as "dirty," and "unprofessional." Most Black people wash their hair about once a week or biweekly because the hair does not retain moisture as much, so washing it too often is actually damaging.

People also think that Black hair is dirty because particles cannot fall off of strands as easily as it can with thin, straight hair. The truth is everyone's hair has the opportunity to get dirty! As long as it is washed when it is supposed to be, there is no difference. Textured hair actually benefits greatly from oils produced from glands, though straight-haired people view this as "greasy" or "dirty."

Regarding the professionality of Black hair, the mindset behind the discrimination is mind-blowingly ignorant. The main reason employers see it as non-professional is because it is seen either as "childish" or "unkempt." The view of curly hair as childish is backed by employers who find it difficult to take people with curls seriously. The logic behind this is unknown. As far as the "unkempt" part, anyone's hair is unkempt if not properly groomed! The truth is-- curly hair can be unruly and unpredictable but that's the beauty in it.

Advancements Toward Ending the Discrimination

In 2019, California became the first state to make hair discrimination illegal via the CROWN Act. The act prohibits race-based discrimination on hair including protective styles like Bantu knots, cornrows, braids, etc. Seven other states have also passed this act: Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, Colorado, Washington, New Jersey and New York. Though this is a great step forward, it means that 42 states can still fire based on hair. The US house of representatives passed the CROWN Act as a bill in September 2020 in hopes to become a federal law.

My Personal Experience

My personal hair type is a mixture of 3b and 4a curls. Although my hair type is discriminated against a bit less than those with coily textures, I've been the target of some nasty remarks. While working, I've been told to put my hair up because "customers might think it's dirty" (who says that?!). On a day where I might not feel like styling my hair, I've been told I looked "bad" or "tired" because my curls were in more of a protective style. Protective styles are the ones that are subject to the most judgement. While working in a non-food-service position, I've been reprimanded by a manager for twirling my hair. Meanwhile my white counterparts who worked as servers or food runners would serve food with their hair basically touching food!

How You Can Help

Allies should educate themselves on the history of Black hair and know its importance to the community. You can also call out injustice when you see it, especially as a white person calling out other white people. Drawing attention to these issues is critical in helping achieve justice for African and African-American people.

Allies can also take more straight-forward approaches such as contacting the U.S. Senate, reaching out via social media (it's worth a try!), and attending protests. There are also some nonprofit organizations supporting natural hair education and empowerment, like Embracing My Natural, Inc. and Hair on Purpose, Inc.

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