Part 2: Hair Politics and Economics
“I love my hair because it’s a reflection of my soul. It’s dense, it’s kinky, it’s soft, it’s textured, it’s difficult, it’s easy, and it’s fun. That’s why I love my hair.” - Tracee Ellis Ross
Although the various ways that Black people style and wear their hair should be uplifted and celebrated, in many academic, professional and social spaces, it is considered unpresentable and unkept. Many Black people deal with the prioritization of European standards over Black cultural staples. Today and in the past Black people have faced denial of access in various academic, professional, social and cultural spaces. Black people have also grappled with denial of job and academic opportunities because of their afrocentric hair styles.
The first natural hair discrimination case appear in 1976 with the case of Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a race discrimination lawsuit against an employer for bias against afros. The appeals court agreed that workers were entitled to wear afros under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Today we see some political strives to end hair discrimination with policy change. For example, In June 2019, California made headlines for becoming the first state to outlaw the racial discrimination of individuals based on natural hairstyles such as braids, locs, twists and knots in public schools and the workplace. The bill, SB 188, passed in an unanimous vote by California’s state assembly on June 27, 2019.
The climate surrounding Black hair also affects Black people economically. Straightening and many other efforts to style Black hair can be very expensive for customers, which has built a highly lucrative industry. At what may have been the height of their usage, Black women in the US spent $206 million on relaxers and chemical straightening alone. Additionally, hair is also an economic issue for Black women from the lens of maintaining employment. The value placed on straight hair leads employers to promote the idea that Afrocentric hairstyles are unprofessional. As a result, the decision to wear braids, twists, and other textured hairstyles, instead of straightening their hair, has led to problems in the workplace or even loss of employment for many Black women.
A problem within social justice and diversity when it comes to the policing of Black hair, is finding ways to create inclusive spaces when deeply rooted and historical implicit bias continues to exist. We see this manifested specifically in school and workplace environments with a lack of diversity and inclusion. For example, The Fortune 500, composed of some of the largest and most powerful corporate companies in the United states, doesn't have a single Black female CEO as of 2020. Similarly, in 2018, the Center of Talent and Innovation released a report that found that Black people account for only 3.2% of senior leadership roles at large corporations and 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. It was also found that only 8% of white-collar professionals are Black and of 2019 only four Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, down from seven less than a decade ago, and none of them are women. The study also reported that one of the main reasons many Black people aren't being represented in corporate ranks is because of a lack of mentorship from and access to senior leaders, compared to white counterparts.
This lack of representation reveals a deeper issue of not only making diversity a priority in workspaces, but also ensuring that people of diverse backgrounds are being respected, protected and given opportunities. This includes acceptance of all Black natural and Afrocentric hairstyles. Exclusion and prejudice is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our systems that discrimination of Black people and their cultural ideals has become inappropriately normalized. We must make space for this conversation and further systemic and political change.
Griffin , C. (2019, July 3). How natural black hair at work became a civil rights issue ... https://daily.jstor.org/how-natural-black-hair-at-work-became-a-civil-rights-issue/.
Hamilton , A. (2021, February). Untangling discrimination: The Crown act and PROTECTING ... https://scholarship.law.uc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1388&context=uclr.
Donahoo, S., & Smith, A. D. (2019). Controlling the crown: Legal efforts to professionalize black hair. Race and Justice, 215336871988826. https://doi.org/10.1177/2153368719888264
Davis, D.-M. (2020, June 4). There are zero black women leading Fortune 500 companies right now. Here's how company culture can be sculpted to change that. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/diversity-and-inclusion-change-company-culture-for-black-women-2020-2.
Racine, K. A. (2019, October 28). Newsroom. Natural Hair Discrimination is Illegal in the District | Attorney General Karl A. Racine. https://oag.dc.gov/blog/natural-hair-discrimination-illegal-district.