Natural hair should be celebrated but, unfortunately, it isn’t always. In fact, specific regulations against textured hair have been structurally embedded into institutions we take for granted, including schools, the military and in the workplace.
Attacking identity through hair is not a new phenomenon, however, what’s deeply troubling is how this type of blatant discrimination becomes codified into law. These laws are able to shape the outlook groups of people until any divergence from the “norm” – which is Eurocentric – is considered a resistance, even if it involves taking no action. In this case, something as simple as leaving the hair on your head alone, and not going out of your way to chemically change it or hide it under other hair, is a subversive act.
Not only can wearing natural hair often be perceived as subversive, there are systems in place to punish the wearer, to prevent textured hair from even being seen.
In the Workplace
An example of this can be found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the Act makes it illegal to segregate a workplace or discriminate based on race, employers are still given the green light to not hire based on appearance. And nothing is being done to change this.
An overwhelmingly white male Supreme Court has failed to offer any protection to women of color when the issue does land in their hands, even though the same story keeps playing out. The way employers are able to get away with this is because hair is technically “race neutral,” although it truly isn’t. A company that doesn’t hire a black woman with dreadlocks could make the argument that they would also not hire a white woman with the same hairstyle. This is in spite of the fact that styles considered controversial are disproportionally present in the black community.
In the Classroom
These discriminatory policies against natural hair are far-reaching and begin at a young age. What’s most heartbreaking is seeing how it affects children, especially when they are proud to come to class, rocking their hairstyle—only to be sent home and publicly embarrassed by an out of touch, racist school administration. Again, there are, unfortunately, no shortage of examples of this happening. As recently, as August 21st an African American student was actually forced to leave school because her hair was considered “not natural” (she had extensions in at the time) and was therefore in violation of her Louisiana school dress code. It seems like this is creating a lose-lose situation for women of color—even if you are wearing a weave, it’s still reason enough to justify impeding an education. This is inherently racist, totally unacceptable and indicative of many other larger-picture discrimination issues. In other words, it’s never just about the hair.
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On the Frontlines
The Army Regulation (AR) 670-1 document is what defines army uniform regulations. It is a document that has been criticized before, as natural styles are not allowed. The language of the document is particularly troublesome, as it actually refers to dreadlocks as “unkempt.” This was finally changed last year, such that female service members are allowed braids, cornrows, twists and dreadlocks. Though this does demonstrate progress, it still includes stringent restrictions on size of braids and trivial details regulating how much the style “protrudes.” It should be noted that service men are currently not allowed these style options, and the Navy only followed suit to allow these styles on women as recently as July.
Luckily, there progress being made and it begins with viewing natural styles (and therefore blackness) as beautiful. In a study sponsored by Shea Moisture called “The ‘Good Hair’ Study: Explicit and Implicit Attitudes Toward Black Women’s Hair,” over 4,000 respondents shared their opinions and thoughts on natural hair. The study found “a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of color based on their hair.”
The upside? Millennials and those younger are helping shift these attitudes. According to the finding, millennials of all races showed “far more positive attitudes towards textured hair than their older counterparts,” and “naturalistas” (defined as girls with natural hair) showed either “no bias or a slight preference for natural hair.”
It should also be noted that sales of relaxer have fallen dramatically over the last two years (according to Mintel, sales fell down 18.6 percent from 2013 to 2015 ) especially as celebs who embrace their natural hair have made embracing texture cool. These are steps in the right direction, and hopefully the rest of the country catches on. It’s important to remember that natural hair is much more than a trend—it’s literally just a hair type—but because natural hair is only possible on people of color, it has been politicized, regulated and discriminated against.