Don’t Touch My Crown: A Discourse on Hair Discrimination
Denessia Blake | @denessia_
“Hair discrimination is racial discrimination” (Buttigieg, 2019). Democrat candidate, Pete Buttigieg, expressed this sentiment at Essence Fest. His comment recognized that the hair discrimination faced by Black women is an extension of the social control over Black bodies, which began with the enslavement of Africans and has continued under the racist ideologies and regimes of today (Johnson, 2016).
Before the enslavement of Africans, hair played an important role in African cultures. Dreadlocks and box braids were some of the common hairstyles found in drawings from Ancient Egypt (Horne, 2019). Box braids were also traced to the Mbalantu women in Namibia. In West African communities, braids signified age, religion, marital status and rank (Horne, 2019). Cornrows were a representation of agriculture and civilized way of life (Horne, 2019). During slavery and afterwards, cornrows were worn to pay homage to African roots and to protect the hair during long laboured days (Horne, 2019). Many Africans were degraded by the shaving of their hair by slave masters, wherein bald-headedness symbolized loss and grief in Africa (Johnson, 2016). Legislation was passed to order Black women to cover their “dirty hair” in public arenas (Byrd & Tharps, 2014). Slaves whose textured hair resembled that of Europeans received better treatment.
Legislation was passed to order Black women to cover their “dirty hair” in public arenas.
Black women continue to pay for having afro textured hair and wearing african hairstyles (i.e braids, dreadlocks), that are seen as a show of rebellion, and thus justification for racist-sexist employment-based discrimination (Johnson, 2016). One such example is that of Chastity Jones whose job offer was rescinded because she wore dreadlocks. The Supreme Court refused to re-examine her case under the rationale that the company did not violate federal civil rights law (LDF, 2018). This example demonstrates the subtle ways in which social and political structures continue to oppress Black women.
Hair discrimination is a function of systemic racism, a fundamental cause of health and illness, which impacts socio-economic status (SES) (Link & Phelan, 2015). Systemic racism has privileged Whites through: structural factors (i.e government positions, media, educational institutions); disproportionate distribution of resources (i.e knowledge, power, money, prestige); and social psychological advantages (i.e ideology that Whites are superior). These mechanisms have led to the reproduction of SES and health inequalities by race (Link & Phelan, 2015).
For as long as I can remember my hair has been my identity; a notion nurtured by my Jamaican family. My mother would do my hair in styles, rooted in African and Caribbean traditional hairstyling; one such style was the bantu knots (multiple mini buns). I recall wearing these bantu knots to school - predominantly attended by Black children - and my peers ridiculing the style. At the time I felt embarrassed and I cried. Reminiscing on this memory, I recognize the responses of my peers - who looked like me and were not unfamiliar with these hair styles - as a manifestation of internalized racism and a consequence of the media dictating what is acceptable and what is not. Since slavery, there has been a conditioning of the Black woman to aspire to the European standards of beauty (i.e long, straight hair) (Johnson, 2016). Some individuals may succumb to these standards (i.e chemically relax or straighten their hair) as a means of survival in order to protect themselves against discrimination in schools or the workplace (Johnson, 2016).
Hair discrimination is a function of systemic racism.
However, there are individuals who wear hair as a form of resistance. For instance, I had a conversation with my guy friend who decided to dread his hair as a way to resist society’s standards on the Black male. This conversation was reminiscent of the Nivea advertisement (which was pulled down after a wave of outrage), captioned “Re-civilize yourself: Look like you give a damn” (Ortiz, 2011). The advertisement was the image of a Black man who had a shaved head and was wearing a suit - holding a replica of his head which was wearing an afro - positioned in a stance to throw the head away. This advertisement is a call back to when enslaved Africans were told to cover their “dirty hair” (Byrd and Tharps, 2014). It adds to the vilification of Black hair and bodies, implying that the practices that stem from African and Caribbean countries are savage and unacceptable. While we are living in the post-civil rights era, the social psychological mechanisms of systemic racism continue to persist today.
Anti-oppression practices - frameworks which seeks to disintegrate power hierarchies - must recognize all aspects in which racism and oppression have manifested in the lives of communities who have been, and continue to be systematically oppressed (Curry-Stevens, 2016).
To some, the discourse of hair rights may be irrelevant but hair has been important to the identity of those of us that come from the African and Caribbean diaspora. It has played a role in our resistance and tying us to the roots of our homelands. Hair discrimination is racial discimination, and racial discrimination has real social and health consequences on the lives of Black people (Buttigieg, 2019; Phelan & Link, 2015). Therefore, to understand our histories of oppression, is to understand every aspect of that oppression.
Buttigieg, P. [PeteButtigieg]. (2019, July 7). You’re not free if you can be kicked out of
school or lose your job if somebody says your hair is a distraction. Hair discrimination is racial discrimination. #essencefest. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/PeteButtigieg/status/1148050634542915584
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Horne, M. (2018, February 28). A Visual History of Iconic Black Hairstyles. Retrieved
Johnson, E. (2016). Resistance and empowerment in black women’s hair styling.
Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (2018, May 14). U.S. Supreme Court
Declines to Review Major Employment Discrimination Case Targeting Natural Black Hairstyles. Retrieved from https://www.naacpldf.org/press-release/u-s-supreme-court-declines-review-major-employment-discrimination-case-targeting-natural-black-hairstyles/
Ortiz, J. (2011, August 19). Nivea Pulls Racist "Re-Civilize Yourself" Ad After Sparking
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