Why Is My Hair Still Up For Debate?

Why Is My Hair Still Up For Debate?

Photo: Luis Jaime Rodríguez Reynoso

In December 2022, Senate Republicans blocked the CROWN Act, which looked to end race-based hair discrimination on a federal level. Since then, 19 states have taken it upon themselves to enact their own versions of the CROWN Act. Writer Cheyenne Tyler Jacobs reflects on her own natural hair journey at work, and what this law really means for Black women like her.

“Yes, my hair looks amazing, and no, you cannot touch it.”

It was my first job as a grocery store cashier in New Jersey, and I was proud to finally be earning my own money at 17 years old. Most importantly, I felt like #thatgirl because my box braids were freshly done. The day was going well until an older white woman reached across the register and pulled on my hair, asking me: “Wow, these are cool… but isn't this a hairstyle for Black men like Lil’ Wayne?”

I was no stranger to getting looks, as a 6’2” Black woman who was not afraid to speak her mind, but this was only the beginning. As I reflect on younger Cheyenne, I only wish to tell her that, unfortunately, these microaggressions were only going to get worse. It would be a long time before my hair was accepted, especially in the workplace. There would be more unwanted touching of my hair at work, and microaggressions would become commonplace with comments like, “Oh, that headwrap is interesting? Is it religious? If not, you might not be able to wear it,” or, “Your hair is so big, and I could never manage to have hair like that. It's too much,” and the incredulous, “Did you not want to do your hair today?”

The comments were unacceptable, but every day, coworkers and employers let them slide. Because, according to their company policy, well… my hair was a problem. Some companies have more explicit rules about natural hair within their dress codes. But, more often, their bias towards natural hair is not as explicit. A Dove survey found that Black women were 1.5 times more likely to be sent home because of their hair, while another found that Black women who had natural or textured hairstyles received negative reviews when applying for jobs. Others have even been fired or, in some instances, had their hair cut and altered at their place of work or education. 

I know what that kind of pressure is like. I tried chemically straightening my hair to be seen as more acceptable for jobs—and that left me with chemical burns and experiencing years of hair loss. Leaders within corporations need to understand that many of our dress code policies—and the outdated idea of “professionalism” as a whole—were created to keep Black and marginalized people of color out of the workforce. 

I tried chemically straightening my hair to be seen as more acceptable for jobs—and that left me with chemical burns and experiencing years of hair loss.

Currently, 19 states have passed their own versions of the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), prohibiting race-based hair discrimination in employment and state programming. The Crown Coalition is still petitioning to get the CROWN Act passed on the federal level and will be re-introducing the bill for the 2023 legislative session. 

Since the bill has been enacted into law on state levels, employers have started to become more aware of how their hiring process can contribute to hair discrimination, which disproportionately affects Black women. Having hairstyles like locs, twists, Bantu knots, afros, cornrows, braids and textured hair make it harder to get a job. Research shows that 80 percent of Black women feel like they need to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.

Not only have I worn all of these styles myself, but they also have cultural meaning within many Black communities. In the early days of this nation, enslaved African women would create maps to freedom with cornrows, styles such as Bantu knots are said to originate from the Zulu Kingdom in Africa, and dreadlocks historically represented your place as a warrior or in the spiritual realm within a tribe. Beautiful, deep, and rich culture has been written off as “unprofessional” by our European standards of beauty within the corporate workspace.

How many people have been denied and fired from their job due to their hair texture? Who else had to give up their culture and self-expression because braids, afros, and dreadlocks were not deemed “office appropriate?” Hair and texture discrimination forces Black employees to  code-switch just to survive at work amongst their predominantly white colleagues. My hair was eventually embraced by others in my professional life, but that’s not the case for everyone.

Many employers have dress codes which are systems that are inherently made to exclude and uphold systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and ableism. Hair discrimination is one of these forms of oppression, which is why we need to actively remove biases and look at individuals with a more nuanced eye. Ask yourself this question: “Is this person’s hair hindering their ability to work or impeding anyone else?” The answer is no.

Diversity does not mean hiring someone that you can whitewash and mold to your outdated corporate standards, but hiring them for their individuality and what they can bring to the table. 

Inclusivity does not come from sending a mass email acknowledging Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month. It comes from doing the hard work and reflecting on your own biases, and why you might innately view certain forms of personal expression as lesser than. Equity is the constant and intentional work of dismantling your workplace policies that created an environment where laws like the CROWN Act needed to be enacted in the first place! 

But, not all is lost. We can dismantle these discriminatory policies and behaviors that negatively impact people with Black and textured hair. As individuals, this can be done by taking out the words “ethnic,” “different,” and “extra” when describing the hair of Black individuals in the office, because that language ostracizes us. For managers, when employee evaluations are being conducted, are your Black employees being evaluated on their work and performance or are you centering their professionalism and how they present themselves? 

My hair may seem different to you, but it is normal and powerful to me. My hair is a community, my hair is ancestral beauty, and my hair is professional. So, if your workplace is truly inclusive, my hair—my Black, textured hair—is not up for debate in your workplace policy.

Cheyenne Tyler Jacobs 

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