The Policing of Black Women’s Hair in America Needs to End

Black hair is beautiful. It defies gravity. Black women have discovered an endless amount of ways to style it. And despite how much criticism Black people face because of it, non-Black people continue to imitate it worldwide.

The rampant hair discrimination in this country is a key reason why Black people fight so hard against cultural appropriation. Many members of the Black community have internalized the idea that coily hair is unattractive, causing young Black children to grow up wishing for “good” hair. Even the natural hair movement, which Balck women created to uplift those with coiler curl patterns, has been called out on social media for centering Black women with looser curls. 

The oppression that Black people have faced for their hair began during slavery. The other beauty standards we have today– beauty standards that idealize one’s proximation to whiteness– evolved during this time as well. 

Black hair’s unique texture has been subject to scrutiny throughout the 18th century and beyond. Hair was important in many African cultures, but when people were forced into slavery they were also forced to bear the constant policing of their hair. Many real accounts portray enslaved Black women having their hair cut off by their white masters’ wives out of jealousy or as a punishment. 

In a historical research paper titled “Resistance and Empowerment in Black Women’s Hair Styling,” Indiana University Northwest professor Elizabeth Johnson writes, “By shaving [a Black enslaved person’s] hair, an enslaver was symbolically cutting away a valued history and an African aesthetic.”

Even free Black women were not free to wear their hair as they wished. In 1786, Louisiana passed the Tignon Law, which required that all Black women wear head coverings called tignons. There was an increased free Black population in New Orleans that was becoming wealthy, threatening the rigid social order that put white people on top. The head coverings signified the lower social status of the Black woman. 

Though lawmakers meant to police the way women looked, the Black women in Louisiana protested by wearing decorative and elaborate tignons. Just Like how Black women today continue to challenge the definition of beauty with innovative fashion statements, it was happening 200 years ago as well. 

So many trends created by Black people are not considered fashion-forward or beautiful until worn on white people, and hair is no exception. The controversy incited by Marc Jacobs’s 2016 New York Fashion Week runway show is one of the best examples. The prominent fashion designer’s Spring 2017 collection included a faux locs hairstyle worn by primarily non-Black models. In his misguided attempt to apologize, Jacobs claimed “he didn’t see color.” Yet, there were very few Black women– or even women of color– walking his runway show.

Locs are often considered unprofessional and have lost many Black people their jobs, despite it being a natural and clean protective style. Soon after Marc Jacobs’s high fashion appropriation of a culturally significant Black hairstyle, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that banning locs in the workplace is 100% legal. 

The court decided on the ruling based on a case where an employers revoked an African-American woman’s job offer because she refused to cut off her locs. Locs are a hairstyle that can be well maintained and professional, and the assumption that locs are automatically unkempt and unfit for a workplace is discriminatory. 

If locs were attractive and fashionable on Gigi Hadid during Marc Jacobs’s show, we should not see Black people losing opportunities because of a style that is meant for our hair texture. As someone with locs, I still fear having to cut the hair I’ve had since I was four to get a job. That should not be the case.

Hair discrimination isn’t limited to locs– it’s also been applied to other protective styles such as box braids and cornrows. In 2017, a  school in Boston threatened two Black sisters with suspension because their box braids violated their school’s dress code.  

Hair discrimination also appears as a result of the European colonization of Africa. A South African all-girls school, which was before white-only until 1994 under Apartheid, set limitations on how the Black students were able to wear their hair. According to the Huffington Post, Pretoria High School For Girls’ restrictions specified that “cornrows, dreadlocks, and braids may not be more than 10mm in diameter.” Though explicitly banned in the school handbook, the students’ afros were also a source of criticism from their white teachers, who told them to neaten their hair.

A study done by beauty brand Dove revealed that Black women are “80% more likely to change her natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work.” The next time you’re confused about why Kim Kardashian renaming box braids “Bo Derek Braids” and being called a trendsetter incites controversy in the Black community, look no further than all the instances of hair discrimination throughout history, 

In June 2019, the passage of the CROWN Act (which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair”) made California the first U.S. state to ban discrimination based on hair texture. Several states have also passed similar legislation, including New York and New Jersey, but hair discrimination remains legal in much of the country. 

Positive media representation of Black hair is key to further acceptance in society. Assimilation caused many Black women to straighten their hair to fit beauty standards, meaning that many models, actresses, and musical artists rarely are seen embracing an afro or natural styles. 

It’s clear that the entertainment industry still has a long way to go. Lupita Nyong’o, called out Grazia UK magazine in 2017 for photoshopping out her afro puff for the cover issue. Numerous Black and Afro-Latinx models, such as Joan Smalls and Anok Yai, recently called out stylists within the fashion industry for claiming Black hair is “too difficult to work with.” 

On the flip side, the Oscar-winning animated short film Hair Love is a step in the right direction. In the film, the father of a little Black girl learns to style his daughter’s coily Afro hair. When I saw Hair Love for the first time, it was so exciting to see Black families and the importance of Black hair portrayed so beautifully.  

There may be clear signs of progress, but there is still so much work that society must do. Until Black women (and men) can wear styles that hold cultural importance everywhere without penalization, we will not be living in a world where Black people are treated equally. We should not have to chemically straighten our hair to receive the same respect that society gives white people.

My hair is not distracting. My hair is not messy. My hair is not unprofessional. My hair is part of my culture- and it does not have to fit your European standards of beauty.

full credit for featured image goes to April Kae, @loveaprilkae on Instagram

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