Let’s Get Real About Hair Discrimination

Pressure to “tame” their hair robs Black students of time and money. It’s time for a national CROWN Act.

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A version of this article was originally published in The Shakerite, the student newspaper of Shaker Heights High School, in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

As a Black woman, having your hair done is just as much of a necessity as wearing clothes when you exit your home.

Looking back, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat poolside refusing to enter the water, fearful of messing up my hair, how many times have I missed out on family gym trips, not wanting to sweat my hair out, or how many times have I skipped parties or hang-outs because my hair wouldn’t come out the way I wanted it to.

I’ve always loved wearing my hair out and natural, but now it feels more like a chore than a creative form of self-expression. If I am going to wash my hair, I have to set aside an entire day and plan not to see anyone because washing, detangling, deep conditioning and styling takes a whole day’s worth of work. I’ve prioritized finishing my twist-out over doing my homework, forcing me to stay up until unreasonable hours cramming to finish, because the embarrassment of going to school with my hair messed up was worse than the idea of going to class without my work done.

Getting braids, a protective style that will allow me to cut my get-ready time in half, can take up to 12 hours to finish, costing anywhere from $50 to $350. I have never spent more than $180, and I’ve been blessed to have a mother who can braid and who taught me to braid. Those who can’t do their own hair and have no friends or family to do it for a discounted price can end up spending a fortune. And as soon as the braids look messy, there’s pressure to take them out, or else someone will call you out saying you don’t take care of yourself.

The author, Erin Williams, shows the versatility of Black hair through her array of different hairstyles.

Hair is a form of expression, but has become a means to be judged by. Whenever I leave my house without my hair done–which is quite controversial because a lot of people (especially older Black people) don’t even see an afro as done–I get comments like, “Erin you need to do something with that head,” as if my hair in its natural state is not good enough. After hearing phrases like that so many times, it’s been imprinted on me not to respect someone whose hair isn’t done. As a result, I’ve said the same thing to other Black girls whose hair I don’t see as done. It is a vicious cycle.

It’s truly sad how much we as Black women have embodied the self-hate that’s been projected onto us for centuries. Enslaved people were forced to cover their hair, relaxed hair was the standard for my grandma and mother’s generations, now it’s long wigs and weaves. When it’s natural, it is only considered beautiful if there are defined curls on hair that is at least touching the collar bone when straight. I should be comfortable and confident enough to be able to present myself to the public without my hair always being gelled, slicked, and defined. But I don’t.

The judgements are not only upheld by ourselves, but those who are not black as well. The standard of tamed, straight and slick hair stems from white influence, so it only makes sense for them to ultimately be the decider of whether our hair is appropriate or not in settings that the control.

Over the years, there have been countless stories of children as young as six years old being sent home or kicked out of schools due to their hair not following “dress codes”. The New York Times covered an incident in which an 11 year old was asked to leave her school after showing up to the first day of classes with extensions. When she came back with a different style, they still did not accept it and she was asked to leave the school (Black Girl Sent Home From School Over Hair Extensions).

There have been students who were not allowed to walk the stage on the day of their graduation due to their hairstyle. There have been qualified applicants who have been denied job opportunities because of their hair being seen as unprofessional–hence the unspoken rule to show up to interviews with straight hair.

Luckily, the push for change has resulted in action.The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act was recently passed in California with the goal “to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools,” according to The Official CROWN Act Website. While the CROWN act has yet to be passed nationwide, it’s a small step towards ending the discrimination towards Black hair.

I’ve had this conversation many times about the amount of work it takes to always keep our hair done, and almost every single other Black girl has had similar experiences.

We joke about how much we’d love to just cut it all off one day, and dream about the load off it would be to not have to exert so much energy and thought into it every day. However, for a lot of us, we wouldn’t dare. I know I wouldn’t because whether consciously or subconsciously, we know how much of our self-worth, beauty, and femininity comes from having our hair presented in the way we want.

For all women, hair is something that can make or break how we feel about the way we look. However for Black women it’s an even deeper issue. Our femininity is already stripped, as people often see our Blackness before our femininity, and thus we are already more associated with masculinity. Then, when a shaved head is added on to that, it would be so much harder to be seen as feminine.

It’s also hard to envision myself without a head full of hair when so many of my compliments come from my hair. Walking around at school with my hair out and curly, in a big puff, or with fresh braids, I generally hear at least a few positive comments about my hair daily. Less frequently I get comments of being pretty in general. Am I not pretty without my hair? From these experiences, what else are we, as Black girls, supposed to believe?

As a collective we need to reflect on our self-acceptance (or lack thereof) when our hair isn’t slicked into a painful ponytail or our edges laid and our hair isn’t in braids so tight they’re causing premature balding. Not only should we reflect on our own self-hate, but how we project it onto other Black women. With all of the discrimination coming from outside of our community, the last thing we need is to shame each other for not fitting into the box of what we believe is acceptable.

As for those who are not in the Black community, showing support for the CROWN act through a vote or simply informing a friend or peer about it is necessary for the spread of the law that will protect Black women from discrimination based on their hairstyle. We cannot do it alone, so take the steps to help us achieve nationwide protection.

Erin Williams

Erin Williams is a Guest Author for Kidizenship from Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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