Have you ever heard of hair discrimination? You’ve probably heard of discrimination based on sex, gender, age, religion, disability, or race. But isn’t it too extreme to discriminate against someone’s hair? Apparently not, because hair discrimination in the US is more pervasive than you think.
If you’re not a black American, you might not even be aware it exists. But the truth is that hair discrimination in the US occurs in schools, the workplace, sports, and the military. But before we go to specific instances of hair discrimination, let’s take a look at its origins and the US Hair Law History until now.
History of Hair Discrimination in the US
Hair discrimination isn’t really about hair; it’s about race. Policies prohibiting hairstyles like Bantu knots, braids, afro, cornrows, and locs target black people as these hairstyles characterize their natural hair.
In 1786, the Tignon Laws enacted in Louisiana required Creole women, who are of mixed European and black heritage, to wear a head covering. Wearing a tignon, which resembles a scarf, over their hair became mandatory because these women’s elaborate hairstyles supposedly attracted undue attention. In essence, however, a tignon served as a badge of inferiority, identifying lighter-skinned Creole women as African descendants and belonging to the slave class.
In 1964, almost two centuries later, the Civil Rights Act was passed. It’s considered historic legislation in the struggle for equality as it prohibited racial discrimination, among other things. However, this law gave the courts the prerogative to interpret racial discrimination.
The first hair discrimination lawsuit was filed by Beverly Jenkins in 1976 against her employer for denying her a promotion due to her afro. The US Court of Appeals decided in favor of Jenkins, ruling that afros are protected by the Civil Rights Act and setting a precedent for fighting hair discrimination in the workplace.
Despite the legal triumph of this landmark case, many federal courts continue to uphold hair discrimination, citing that hairstyle can be changed.
The CROWN Act
Another significant legislation forbidding race-based hair discrimination is the CROWN Act, which stands for ‘Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.’ It extends statutory protection to hairstyles such as braids, knots, twists, and locs in the corporate and academic setting.
Although several states have passed their version of the CROWN Act, with California being the first, other states have yet to follow suit to make hair discrimination illegal.
Instances of Hair Discrimination
Discrimination happens in places you’d least expect, such as the following:
- In Schools
Even black children bear the brunt of discrimination as some schools consider their natural hairstyles a violation of grooming policies, therefore constituting grounds for discipline or expulsion. As a result, black students are forced to cut or straighten their hair.
In August 2018, Christ the King Elementary School in Terrytown, Louisiana, sent home an elementary student for wearing a braided hairstyle.
The following year, a public elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia, displayed photos of black children to illustrate ‘inappropriate’ hairstyles for its students. The images include girls wearing braids.
As black students are more likely to be suspended for minor offenses such as hair violations, they develop resentment toward an educational system that suppresses their expression of black culture and identity.
- In The Workplace
As mentioned earlier, race-based hair discrimination persists in the workplace.
In 2013, Chastity Jones enlisted the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in filing a racial discrimination lawsuit against the company that hired her but withdrew the job offer because she refused to cut off her locs. The case reached the Supreme Court, but it declined to try her case without reason or explanation.
In January 2019, Noble Jones, a news anchor in Mississippi, was fired for wearing a natural hairstyle. Jones alleged that her news director regarded her natural hairstyle as ‘unprofessional.’
According to a 2019 CROWN research study, black women with natural hair are 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional. Results also show a significant disparity in the perceived job readiness of black women with natural hairstyles compared to black women with straightened hair.
- In Sports
Hair discrimination exists even in sports, as demonstrated by the 2018 case of a black high school student who was compelled by the referee to cut off his locs or forfeit a wrestling match.
Similarly, a black softball player in North Carolina was forced by the umpire to choose between cutting out her hair beads or forfeiting the game.
- In The Military
Previously, the US Army imposed strict hair regulations for women soldiers, requiring them to wear buns regardless of their hair texture. Black women soldiers used to be severely penalized for not adhering to those standards, so many were forced to straighten their hair to make them fit into a bun.
Thankfully, the US Army modified its guidelines in February 2021, allowing black women soldiers to wear braids, twists, locs, cornrows, or even two hairstyles at once.
Hair discrimination, although subtle, is deeply rooted in racism. It compels black people to conform to American and European standards of beauty and professionalism or face severe consequences at school or in the workplace. It also keeps black people from expressing their cultural pride and identity through their natural hair.
The enactment of the CROWN Act in several US states represents a significant stride in the struggle to end race-based hair discrimination. When the rest of the states join in criminalizing hair discrimination, we stand a good chance of upholding equality in every aspect of public life.