Wearing Black hair naturally, or in Black styles, is both celebratory and political. Since many styles have tribal or historical origins, it can be a nod to heritage or family history, and can also be linked to religious belief.
Throughout history, Black people have faced discrimination due to their hair, and have long experienced pressure from white and european cultures to adopt certain styles to ‘fit in’. Hair is also a powerful tool for protest – something that has its roots in the civil rights movement in the sixties. The afro, for example, was symbolic of rebellion against segregation and oppression. By defying society’s expectations, a hairstyle can speak volumes.
But while progress is being made, attitudes towards Black hair are still problematic. From touching hair without consent, to Black people losing their jobs due to wearing their hair naturally, hair discrimination is still rife in today’s community, on our streets, in our workplaces, and even in schools.
There is no correlation between particular hairstyles and the ability for someone to do their job; but you only have to search online for ‘black person fired for hair’ to find close to 100 billion results. One click will lead you to page after page of stories about Black people losing work, being denied shifts, facing rejections from interviews and even getting fired for their hair.
Why? As Natasha Marsh recently wrote for Popsugar: “Maybe corporations see protective styles as “messy” or “unprofessional” – further perpetuating Eurocentric ideals of professionalism. “
According to The Halo Collective, 1 in 5 Black women feel societal pressure to straighten their hair for work. Smoothing natural hair into more Eurocentric styles is something that was adopted by Black people after the abolition of slavery in the late 1800s in order to ‘blend in’ to white society. It’s unbelievable that almost 150 years later, these pressures still exist: smooth hair is still regularly seen as more ‘professional’.
It’s not just in the workplace. The availability of hair products catering for Black people is still an issue, too. Staggeringly, not every high street shop offers products for all hair types, perpetuating racial bias and reducing visibility, which in turn makes it harder for Black hair to be celebrated in all its forms.
When Superdrug carried out research on the topic in 2016, it was revealed that “70% of Black and Asian women felt that the high street did not cater to their beauty needs” – this is a large portion of the population for whom the unavailability of particular beauty products equals the message that their needs are not ‘normal’ or valid.
The absence of specific hair products in shops shows us that assumptions are being made about the company’s target market, and that there is a deep lack of awareness. Catering for Black hair in every high street store could make a difference in normalising hair in all its forms, as it should be. It’s all about representation and equality.
‘It is such a privilege to be able to stroll into any shop and just know that you will at least be able to buy a product that will work on your hair. So many people just take that for granted, but Black women never can,” wrote Natalie Morris for The Metro.
‘You feel unimportant, unaccommodated for. This might sound dramatic to those who have not experienced it, but having to go to a specialist Afro shop elsewhere is the equivalent of having Black-only buses or toilets.”
While the 2010 Equalities Act prevents discrimination due to protected characteristics such as race and religion, discrimination based on hair is still rife and companies are still trying to get away with firing or discipining employees based on their hair.
As mentioned earlier, smooth ‘Eurocentric’ hair is often perceived as more ‘professional’ and even more sanitary, and employers may sometimes use those judgements as rationale for disciplinary action; an approach that is undeniably racist.
Then there’s dress codes. Companies may cite official or unofficial dress codes as a reason to reprimand Black employees for wearing their hair in Black styles, especially if the codes are written in a vague way that could give way to racist interpretation. Natasha continues for Popsugar: “Language matters – grooming policies that state that hair should be “neat” and “well-kept” are outdated and should be modified for greater clarity.”
“Black hair is professional. It is sanitary. And it belongs in the workplace.”
Since the Equalities Act doesn’t seem to be enough, movements and campaigns have been launched over the years to support and protect Black employees against hair discrimination at work. The Halo Collective, who we mentioned earlier, is asking companies and organisations to join their alliance and combat racism against hair types in the workplace.
In October 2021, they united with Kim Johnson MP and Glamour Magazine to sign a letter to specifically recognise textured and Black hair to become a protected characteristic.
As we wait for hair discrimination to become recognised as a serious legal issue, and hair a protected characteristic in its own right, companies, schools and organisations should be educating their communities and working harder to ensure their dress codes don’t discriminate, using specific and inclusive language, and consulting Black employees to ensure codes like this are nonracist. Black hair products also need to be readily available; you should be able to pick them up while you’re doing your weekly food shop, just as you might with any other toiletry products or essentials.
The natural hair movement has made waves in recent years, but in the ocean of discrimination these are mere ripples, and there is still much work to be done before we see Black hairstyles completely normalised and celebrated in all walks of life – especially in the workplace.
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