Before you say “it’s just hair” or that it’s “appreciation not appropriation,” don’t.
Living in America, a country that has never and still doesn’t respect blackness, is extremely difficult for black people because every piece of our identity is policed and “regulated.” Black hair is policed in every setting whether it be academic institutions, the workplace, or the military. Often, we are faced with the same racist and unnecessary ultimatum to secure a second interview, job offer, or to avoid chastisement and embarrassment in school: assimilate or face the consequences.
Although the Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, gender, religion, color, and national origin, companies can get around this law by arguing that black hair is a “mutable characteristic.” Yes, you read that correctly. Because you can straighten your hair or simply remove your protective style, it’s not discrimination.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that refusing to hire someone because of their dreadlocks is legal in a lawsuit involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Chastity Jones and Catastrophe Management Solutions in 2016. Jones’ potential job opportunity to work for CMS, a call center in Alabama, was snatched away because of her dreadlocks. To add more salt to the wound, the human resources manager for CMS, Jeanie Wilson, told Jones the following statements about her dreadlocks:
“They tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.”
Actually, I don’t know what she’s talking about. Everyone’s hair gets messy, but no matter how intricate or neat, black hair is frowned upon the most. The court ruled in favor of CMS’s “race-neutral” grooming policy because black hairstyles while “culturally associated with race,” are not “immutable physical characteristics.”
The price black people must pay for wearing their natural hair or protective styles in white, corporate America is hefty. Although there has been some legal progress made to counteract the war on black hair, it is not enough. Exactly last year, California’s governor was the first to pass the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act into law. Shortly after, New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, banned discrimination based on natural hair. Wow, two out of fifty states finally rose up and banned discrimination against the hair that naturally grows out of our scalps. How amazing.
We have cars that can drive for us, computers that can speak to us, and laws that protect intellectual property but for some odd reason protecting black people and black hair from discrimination is where American schools, businesses, and the government finds difficulty. There have only been two states to ban black hair discrimination, meaning that before 2019 it was perfectly legal in all fifty. There are too many victims of black hair discrimination that had to choose their identity over their freedom and vice versa.
“He told me that my braids were not Banana Republic appropriate and that they were too ‘urban’ and ‘unkempt’ for their image. He said that if I didn’t take them out then he couldn’t schedule me for shifts until I did.”
Destiny Tompkins, a young black woman who was attending college at SUNY Purchase College, was a victim of black hair discrimination in 2017. Her white manager, who was later fired, told her that her braids were too “urban” for Banana Republic. This is why I hate the word “urban” now. If you want to call my hair or my style ghetto, at least be bold enough to say it. Don’t hide behind the word “urban.” After she explained that her hair becomes brittle in the cold weather, he recommended shea butter. How kind. Imagine having to choose between your hair and your income at nineteen.
Now, imagine being a sailor for twelve years only to be discharged because you refused to straighten your hair for the Navy. Unfortunately, this was a reality for Jessica Sims, an African American Navy sailor in 2014.
“I don’t think I should be told that I have to straighten my hair in order to be within what they think the regulations are, and I don’t think I should have to cover it up with a wig,” she told The Navy Times.
Sims was an instructor at a Naval Medicine Support Center in Texas for seven years, and it wasn’t until she was stationed in Great Lakes that her hair became a “problem.” Her chain of command claimed her hair was “out of regulation” and “too bulky for her gas mask.” She’s been serving for over a decade but now all of a sudden, her hair is a problem. Does the navy not have actual important things to worry about? Because she refused to cut or straighten her hair for the Navy, she was discharged.
Maybe the best way to combat this discrimination is to wear our natural hair/protective styles only during black history month.
Sadly, that’s what black former BP executive, Melphine Evans claims she was advised to do in her 24-page lawsuit document against BP for wrongful termination, harassment, and race and gender discrimination. The remarks she claimed she endured by other coworkers in her lawsuit were absolutely horrific:
“You intimidate and make your colleagues uncomfortable by wearing ethnic clothing and ethnic hairstyles (Dashikis, twists, braids/cornrows).”
“If you insist on wearing ethnic clothing/hairstyles-you should only do so during ‘culture day,’ black history month or special diversity events/days.’”
“If you are going to wear ethnic clothing, you should alert people in advance that you will be wearing something ethnic…”
Basically, you can only be black when it’s convenient and beneficial to the company. Noted. After terminating her, BP executives claimed she engaged in “aggressive and bullying behavior” but her yearly evaluation described her as a people person with a true desire for everyone to be heard. Make it make sense.
Before you say it’s just hair, what would you do if you received a call from your child’s school threatening to ban them from graduation and prom? You may think what did this child do? Only for them to tell you that the hair that has been growing from their head for years is now a problem. This was the case for DeAndre Arnold.
In January of this year, DeAndre’s told CNN about his experience of black hair discrimination at Barbers Hill High School. At 18-years-old, his school told him to cut his hair or face the consequences. He was banned from his classes, which resulted in him being suspended, and his school told him he would be unable to walk for graduation and attend his senior prom.
Greg Poole, the school’s superintendent, defended their right to enforce the school’s dress code to CNN: “People wanted to call us racist, but we’re following the rules, the law of the land.”
But racism always reveals itself. His other statements are perfect examples of how our hair is viewed in white America: “I don’t think you can go to school in your underwear.” I wonder why he thinks going to school in your underwear is similar to going to school with a neat, protective style. These two things are not relatable. It does not matter how many regulations we follow because black hair is not respected and is regarded as “messy” “unkempt” or “urban” by most white American institutions.
These comments from Poole are similar to the comments Brittany Noble endured from her news director in Mississippi in January of 2019. Noble, a 32-year-old news anchor, was told that her natural hair was too unprofessional and the equivalent of her director throwing on a baseball cap to go to the grocery store. She was later fired by her news network after the EEOC decided to take her case.
Even when we are being bullied because of our hair, our hair somehow manages to be the culprit. That was the case for sweet, 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke in 2013.
Vanessa attended Faith Christian Academy; a school that thought it was best to threaten her with expulsion, instead of her bullies, after her mother rightfully reported the bullying.
Stop policing our hair. We don’t care that you’re “just following the rules.” If the rules infringed on the autonomy of white people and their hair in every single American setting like it does for black people, then the removal of these rules would be supported and taken seriously. Just google Abigail Fisher. No opportunities were stolen from her but of course she made it all the way to Supreme Court.
In every case listed, no matter the age, job position, or socioeconomic class, each of these victims were forced to choose between their identity and their freedom. Two states FINALLY banning hair discrimination is not success. I should not have to worry about being chastised for wearing my kinky 4c hair or a protective style in ANY setting. Instead of placing that pressure of white assimilation on myself, I’ve learned to avoid any company that can accept black labor but not blackness itself by all means.
As far as I’m concerned, forty-eight other states still have the legal right to discriminate against black hair, and sadly I live in one.