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In Defense of Black Hair

Reactions to Black hair sometimes discriminatory

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on December 22, 2022)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

Editor: Rochelle Bailey

Photo of Bebe and Cece Winans
Bebe and Cece Winans

I vividly recall early Saturday mornings waking up to the sweet sounds of Bebe and Cece Winans' gospel song "I'll Take You There" playing on my mother's 1990s floor model record and cassette player. This was usually a precursor for the sound of a hot-iron comb popping through my sister's hair as my mom spent hours straightening it.

On many weekends, my mom would spend hours putting a chemical compound, called a perm, in their hair to straighten it. And don't dare leave that compound in too long, else your hair will fall out and it can burn your scalp.

I know you might be thinking: "Why someone would subject their children to such a thing?" The simple answer is that Black people, especially girls and women who showed up with their hair the way it naturally grows, would be ridiculed in school, stereotyped in society and denied access to jobs. So, in the 1990s, my mom and the millions of other Black parents across our nation understood the conversations they continually had to have with their children about how they might possibly be treated based on their extrinsic characteristics.

Have other people in our time spoken out about this?

Photo of Rochelle Bailey
Rochelle Bailey

On a Jan. 4 podcast featured by the nonprofit fashion design group INTERFORM, host Rochelle Bailey and guest Montinique Davis, director of hair for NWA Fashion Week had a conversation about some of the same experiences Black women still face. They explained the question "Can I touch your hair?" -- often followed by people unwantedly touching and rubbing their hair -- was often driven by a lack of knowledge, innocent curiosity or a sense of entitlement. Montinique said when she was growing up, white people touched her hair because they felt like they had a right to touch it. Rochelle added, "Unwantedly touching my hair can be triggering and demeaning."

She further explained the need to understand history and that America participated in human zoos in the 1800s. Black people were enslaved as property (chattel slavery) and inspected as such for hundreds of years. Historians, journalists and others have argued the bigotry from that time period still lives on today and what we must do is look at experiences Black people continue to face based on their external characteristics. Let's review some experiences that have been publicized.

In 2010, Chasity Jones had a job offer rescinded by a company in Mobile, Ala. A human resources manager later told Jones that Black hair locks violated the company's grooming policy because they "tend to get messy."

In 2018, Imani Jackson interviewed for a job with American Screening LLC, headquartered in Shreveport, La. As many women do, she wore a wig to the interview. After working there a few weeks, Imani began wearing her tight, curly hair naturally, instead of the wig, and pulling it back into a bun. Other American Screening employees who did not have similarly textured hair also wore buns or ponytails. Imani was informed that her hair was "unacceptable" and that she needed to wear the wig instead. She refused to wear a wig and was fired after about 2 months.

Photo of DeAndre Arnold on The Ellen Show
DeAndre Arnold on The Ellen Show

In 2019, DeAndre Arnold was a high school senior in the Barber Hills Independent School District in Mont Belvieu, Texas. He was informed by the school board that he must cut his hair locs or face in-school suspension. The superintendent, Gregory Poole, stated "Every school district in the nation has a dress code. I don't think you can go to school in your underwear."

These are all anecdotal examples, but if you believe racism is real and enslaving Black and brown people happened, you then also must grapple with the fact that Black people being discriminated against based on their extrinsic characteristics is a manifestation of racism and enslavement. So, why am I writing about this now?

In 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act to prohibit discrimination based on one's hair texture and hairstyle. Some of the specific parts of the text state: "Throughout United States history, society has used (in conjunction with skin color) hair texture and hairstyle to classify individuals on the basis of race...Like one's skin color, one's hair has served as a basis of discrimination."

In another section of the bill, the U.S. Army recognized that for decades the prohibitions against Black natural hair and hairstyles were discriminatory and harmful to Black servicewomen and their ability to serve and protect. While all 221 Democrats and 14 Republicans voted to pass the bill in the U.S. House, it has been sitting in the U.S. Senate since March 21 due to lack of support from Republican senators.

Photo of The CROWN Act Image
The CROWN Act Image

How can we as Americans believe in the founding ideals of liberty and justice for all and "all people are created equal" while at the same time discriminating against people merely because of the way their hair grows naturally?

Eighteen state legislatures have passed some form of the CROWN Act and I am hopeful change is coming. So, how can you help? While you may never fully understand Black Americans' plight, you can actively work to learn what you do not know. You can speak up when you hear inappropriate comments or see discriminatory policies targeting Black hair. Lastly, you can commit to learning what it takes to be an ally for the millions of little Black children, like my child, who simply want to grow up in a world free of hair discrimination.




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