Being your authentic self in the workplace means your natural hair too: It’s time to end hair discrimination
Guest blog by Abre’ Conner, Esq.
Abre’ Conner is the American Bar Association YLD Chief Policy Officer and Health Directing Attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.
For years, Black hair has been weaponized because of long-standing biases associated with hair style and texture. Black hairstyles are so integral to the identity of Black people it is no wonder that society has worked hard to strip Black people of this history and culture. To even begin having conversations regarding narrowing the wealth gap for the Black community and actively taking steps to be anti-racist, race-based hair discrimination must be a priority conversation in the workplace.
Black natural hairstyles have been deemed unprofessional implicitly and explicitly in workplaces for centuries. Indeed, Black people have straightened and manipulated their natural hair, in sometimes damaging ways, to assimilate in non-Black spaces based on clear discrimination. In the legal profession, for example, Black people have been told they don’t “look like an attorney” unless they have chemically manipulated hairstyles or other hairstyles that are not traditional to natural Black hair. In 2010, Chastity Jones was told she needed to cut her locs after she was hired for a customer service position because they would get “too messy.” The grooming policy at her job claimed that they had the right to cease employment if hair did not have a “business/professional image.” These seemingly “neutral” policies are not uncommon. Even more disturbing, some courts have ruled Black hair is a “mutable” or non-inherent and changeable characteristic. Refusing Black people jobs based on their hair clearly has an impact on the possibility of wealth creation within the Black community.
That’s why the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, a bill to protect against textured hair discrimination at the federal level, is so important. The CROWN Act, legislation supported by several Open to All nonprofit coalition members, would make it illegal to discriminate against individuals based on their natural hairstyles. For example, if someone has locs, twists, braids, or other natural hairstyles, a job cannot demand that it be changed as a condition of employment. Some states and cities, including New York, have successfully passed laws that make it illegal to discriminate against these same types of hairstyles in schools. It’s not uncommon for school district dress codes to implement length restrictions for hair or language that says hairstyles can’t be “distracting.”
To be sure, the hairstyles that Black people wear and are asked to change are directly tied to the constant dismissal that Black people experience and can maintain culture and characteristics that make us uniquely who we are. Indeed, the history of discrimination of Black hair traces back to slavery when Black hair was shaved on slave ships to immediately strip people of their identity. And courts for decades have sided against Black hairstyles, stating that seemingly neutral policies that harmed Black hairstyles are just. Although non-Black people have curly hair or imitate protective Black hairstyles, the laws and rules are regularly used against Black people. There are dire statistics related to Black women feeling a need to change their hair just to “fit in” in the workplace. Indeed, 80% of Black women felt pressure to not wear their natural hair or hairstyles because of the workplace culture. And natural hairstyles for Black women, especially when coupled with colorism, can be viewed as aggressive and militant.
Employers can create more safe and inclusive environments by making noticeable changes that make Black people, and specifically Black women, feel welcomed. First, they should review any grooming or dress code policies. Any policies that have broad language such as “professional image” or “distracting and/or unique hairstyles” tend to harm Black people. Next, they should evaluate whether every video meeting requires participation on camera. If an office environment is virtual, Black women may not have their hair in a manner that they want to share through video without advance notice. Additionally, scarves, headwraps, and other ways to cover natural hair that are common in the Black community should be normalized in the workplace environment.
Employers can also create space for Black people to share any other practices that they believe may be impacting their ability to show up authentically in the workplace environment. This should be done in a manner that feels comfortable and without imposing additional burdens on Black employees to fix existing issues. Lastly, we must continue education on the CROWN Act and how it’s being implemented in local and state municipalities. While the conversation is currently focused on getting the federal CROWN Act through the Senate, changes are already being made to school dress codes, housing laws, and more.
Since 2020, many companies have promised to create more diverse and inclusive work spaces. That must include examining policies that stigmatize Black hair. No one should be targeted simply for being who they are. We must protect all employees from discrimination based on natural hairstyles.