Black hair and the natural journey
It’s illegal to discriminate against natural black hairstyles in California, but there’s still work to be done
Growing up as an African-American woman, I didn’t like my hair.
The kinks, the curls, the waves—everything that made my hair what it was, I hated.
Often, I was teased because my hair was “different.” I despised the feeling of not being like those with long, silky, straight hair. Because of this, I straightened my hair everyday from seventh grade until my freshman year in college.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Many women of color don’t love their natural hair until later in life, thanks to bullying and cultural cues that tell us it’s not socially acceptable.
And for good reason: Black hair worn naturally—without straightening, wigs or extensions—has long been an issue with people of color, especially women, who may face job discrimination, school punishment and worse.
The culture is slowly evolving, though. Last year, a new California law guaranteed protections for employees against discrimination based on hairstyle. And earlier this month, a film that played tribute to black hair won an Academy Award.
During slavery, many women were forced to shave their hair because it was seen as a way to erase their identity and culture. Today, for many African Americans, wearing natural hair is a way to honor ancestors, something meant to be carried with confidence and elegance.
It’s not always easy. Many people of color have faced discrimination in the workplace because of their hair. While the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guarantees employment regardless of race, sex, color, religion, disability, national origin or age, its protections don’t extend to physical appearance characteristics such as hair.
So in 2019, California lawmakers took action, passing Senate Bill 188, the CROWN Act.
CROWN, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, prohibits hair-based discrimination in the workplace and schools. California was the first state to enact such protections.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, told CBS News that as a black woman who wears her hair in locks, she wanted to ensure that hairstyles associated with race are protected.
“Every Supreme Court case going back to the ‘80s, when black women were trying to wear their hair braided to work in the banking industry or the airline industry, we’ve lost,” Mitchell said. “Employers have won. That’s why this bill is so critical.”
New York and New Jersey also passed similar laws in 2019, while Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee and Wisconsin have also proposed to ban race-based hair discrimination.
Some local African-American women say that until the new law they lived in constant fear of discrimination.
“Nine out of 10 jobs I’ve applied for while I’ve been on my natural journey, I’ve applied with either a wig or box braids in my hair just to feel accepted,” said Jahnai Williams, who has worn her hair in locs since 2018.
She’s hardly alone.
According to a 2019 study conducted by Dove, 80% of black women said they are more likely to change their natural hair to conform to social norms or expectations at work. The survey also found that “hairstyles inherent to Black identity—locs, braids, and natural curls—are perceived as less professional.”
Williams says this has been her experience, too.
“Society makes dreadlocks out to be unprofessional or assume if you have dreadlocks, you’re a thug or gang-affiliated, regardless of your sex,” she said.
Discrimination reached all corners of society. In 2018, the U.S. Navy lifted its ban on dreadlocks, twists and braids for female sailors, something the Army, Air Force and Marines had already done.
Theresa Easter, a Sacramento native who serves in the Navy, says it’s an important change. “It makes me feel like I can be completely me without being afraid of looking unprofessional,” she said. “I will most definitely be rocking my natural hair.”
Easter, who says she’s always dealt with scrutiny and prejudice because of her hair, remembers one particularly upsetting job interview for a makeup counter position at a department store.
“I wore my hair in a curly fro. I was so excited until I got there and saw that the makeup department was predominantly white girls with blonde straight hair and blue eyes,” she said.
Easter said her interviewer asked her, “If you work here are you going to wear your hair like that?”
Easter said “yes” and walked away discouraged. “I didn’t get the job,” she said. “I felt like I was different and not good enough. I felt belittled.”
It’s not just women facing such prejudice.
In January, a high school suspended Texas teenager DeAndre Arnold because he wears his hair in long dreadlocks, part of his culture in Trinidad. The school’s administration also told him he would not be allowed to walk at his high school graduation unless he cut his hair off.
Arnold attended the Academy Awards earlier this month, at the invitation of former NBA star Dwayne Wade and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union. Also at the Oscars was director Matthew Cherry, a former NFL player whose film Hair Love won the award for best animated short. In the film, a dad teaches himself how to care for and style his young daughter’s hair.
In an Instagram post, Cherry said that the country is on the verge of meaningful change.
“We have a real chance here to help make hair discrimination illegal through the CROWN Act and get it passed as a law in all 50 states,” he wrote.
Over the years, I finally realized my hair doesn’t need to be fixed. Instead, society’s view of beauty is the problem. I will continue to wear my natural hair to be the representation that so many women of color seek.
Cherry emphasized that point in his Academy Award acceptance speech, explaining that he made the film as a way to show how the issue is about changing the laws, culture and society’s acceptance.
“We wanted to normalize black hair,” Cherry said.