The Politics of Hair

It would be an understatement to say that much of the world’s perception of beauty comes from White Europeans. Caucasian colonialism has left in its wake not only a legacy of enslavement, bloodshed, and instability but also a lingering sense of inferiority — an often subtle but constant desperation to be more like the people who massacred our own. The White colonization of our own bodies has led to deeply ingrained cultural norms that we often accept without a second thought — the association of White traits with civility, nobility, sophistication, and everything modern; and the dismissal of traits shared by darker people as less advanced, less intelligent, wild, rowdy…almost (and sometimes literally) animal. Such perceptions go beyond just beauty standards and attractiveness; they can determine one’s place in the world, the basic respect afforded to them, and where they belong.

            People of color are therefore often forced to sacrifice elements of their culture, identity, and even basic biology to better conform to a world governed by a colonialist, White-centric system. We can see this in the recent legal and social battle surrounding hair.

Traditionally Black hair — widely described as curly, kinky, fuzzy, and of a coarser texture than Caucasian hair — has long been derided in the West as unprofessional and inappropriate in the workplace. Numerous studies have confirmed a prevailing bias against potential employees with natural Black hairstyles regardless of qualifications. The most recent wide-ranging survey, conducted by cosmetics giant Dove, demonstrated the following realities faced by those donning their natural hair:

  • When shown two images of the same hairstyle on both Black and white women, the same hairstyle on a White woman was rated 25% higher in “job readiness” than the exact same hairstyle on a Black woman.
  • Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work.
  • Black women are 1.5 times more likely to have reported having been sent home or know a Black women sent home from the workplace because of her hair.
  • Natural Black hairstyles such as locs, braids, bantu knots were ranked the lowest for “job readiness.”
  • Black women fear “scrutiny and discrimination” when expressing their natural beauty in the workplace.
  • Black women report receiving formal grooming policies at a rate “significantly higher” than White women.

It’s clear that employees of color are often faced with a choice: retain an important element of their culture and community or be perceived as “professional” and “respectable” and truly “belonging” in a formal environment. Such standards are not unique to the West; in numerous places worldwide, the general Caucasian approach to hair and overall appearance has established itself as the norm. The extent to which our perception of beauty, professionalism, and what it means to “look appropriate” has been thoroughly colonized by White cultures is embarrassing.

Take, for example, the case of Chastity Jones, a Black woman who in 2010 had her job offer as a customer services representative be taken away because she refused to cut off her natural locs. Or the numerous students of color removed from school or from participating in certain activities due to their natural hair (just to name a select few: a third-grader in Texas being ordered to cut her “puffy hair” under the threat of being expelled otherwise in 2013; Unathi Gongxeka in South Africa having to cut her afro in order to take a high school exam in 2016; Deana and Mya Scot removed from their high school prom and given detention due to having box braids in 2017; Andrew Johnson, a student wrestler forced to cut his dreadlocks during a tournament in 2018; Asia Simo removed from her cheerleading team due to “her thick hair” in 2020). The sense of entitlement it takes to force employees, students, and athletes to modify their natural hair to fit White expectations — even when their hairstyle has no bearing on their performance — is breathtaking. It was not only Black and Brown lands that were colonized; it was Black and Brown bodies and minds as well.

Many guidelines regarding “appropriate” hairstyles in Western schools are vaguely worded and leave significant room to exclude students of color. Such rules cannot be applied equally to students of all ethnic backgrounds, forcing such students to (often permanently) modify their hair to fit guidelines created with primarily White kids in mind.

‘Normal’ looked like a white child’s hair, and everything else is not normal,” said Lily Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the largest teacher union in the United States. “It really is an attack on the culture that these children bring into their schools. You’re saying the way you and your family dress, the way you and your family….wear your hair, is wrong.”

Luckily, recent years have seen new legislation passed to protect people of color from discrimination due to hair. Take, for example, the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Acts passed in California and New York to tackle rising incidents of racial harassment and unequal workplace rules. The Act reads, “The history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated ‘blackness,’ and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment. Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.”

The need to pass legislation as a defence against the entitlement that comes with a colonialist mindset points to just how deep these White-centric standards have taken root. In schools, workplaces, and public events alike, the established norms of Caucasian hairstyles have led to the outright exclusion of students, employees, and participants of color. In order to foster a more inclusive environment for all, we need not only revised laws but a deeper investigation of the type of thinking that leads to such discrimination — the dismissal of natural hair as untamed and wild and inferior. We need to carefully consider just how and why we allow Black and Brown bodies to be colonized in this way.

 

 

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