Is Black Hair Worth Defending? by Taylor Coleman

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Before you say “it’s just hair” or that it’s “appreciation, not appropriation,” don’t.

Living in America, which has never respected 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 school, the workplace, or the military. Often, we are faced with ultimatums to secure a job, a second interview, or our autonomy: cut/straighten your hair or lose said opportunity or freedom.

Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, gender, religion, color, and national origin, many companies get around this law by deeming black hair to be a mutable characteristic. Yes, you read that correctly. Because you can straighten your hair or take out your protective style, it’s not discrimination. In a lawsuit involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Catastrophe Management Solutions in 2016, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that refusing to hire someone because of their dreadlocks is legal. The EEOC filed the lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of Chastity Jones, whose job offer with CMS was snatched away because of her hair. To add more salt and lemon juice to the wound, human resources manager for CMS, Jeanie Wilson, told Jones, “they [dreadlocks] 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 price black people must pay for wearing their natural hair or protective styles in America is exceptionally hefty. Although there has been some progress made to counteract the war on black hair, it is not enough. 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 stepped up and prohibited discrimination on something that black people cannot control. How amazing.

We have cars that can drive for us, computers than 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 find difficulty. Before 2019, it was perfectly legal in all but two states to discriminate against black hair. Black people should not have to wait for justice and equality. There are too many victims of black hair discrimination that had to choose their identity over their freedom and vice versa.

Destiny Tompkins describes the hair discrimination she experienced while attending college. “My manager 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.” After Jones explained that her hair becomes brittle in the cold weather, her manager recommended shea butter. There’s that ultimatum. Imagine having to choose your hair over your income.

Destiny’s white manager, who was later fired, told her that her braids were too “urban.” This is why I hate the word urban now. If you want to call hair or a hairstyle ghetto, at least be bold enough to say it. Now, imagine being a sailor for twelve years only to be discharged because you refused to cut/manipulate your hair for the Navy. Unfortunately, this was a reality for Jessica Sims, an African American Navy sailor.

“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 moved to her Great Lakes station 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 suddenly, her hair was a problem. Didn’t the navy have important things to worry about? Because Simsrefused to cut or straighten her hair for the Navy, she was discharged.

Maybe the best way to combat black hair discrimination is to only wear your natural hair/protective styles during black history month. Sadly, that’s what black former BP executive, Melphie Evans, alleges she was advised to do in her lawsuit against BP for wrongful termination, harassment, and race and gender discrimination. The remarks she claimed to endure by other coworkers in her lawsuit were horrific to hear:

“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 a company. Noted. After terminating Evans, BP executives claimed she engaged in “aggressive and bullying behavior” even though 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, imagine if you received a call from your child’s school threatening to ban them from graduation and prom. You may wonder what did this child do for the school to tell you that the hair that has been growing on the child’s head for years is now a problem. This was the case for DeAndre Arnold.

In January 2020, DeAndre’s experience of black hair discrimination at Barbers Hill High School was broadcast on CNN and went viral. At 18 years old, his school told him to cut his hair or face the consequences. DeAndre was threatened with suspension, inability to walk for graduation, and restriction from attending his senior prom. Also, DeAndre was also banned from his classes, which resulted in his suspension from school.

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.” However, racism always reveals itself. Poole’s other statements are perfect examples of how black hair is viewed in white America. “I don’t think you can go to school in your underwear,” argues Poole. I wonder why he deems going to school in your underwear anywhere close to going to school with a neat, protective style. These two things are not relatable. It does not matter how many regulations are followed because black hair is not respected and is regarded as “messy,” “unkempt,” or “urban” by most white American institutions.

Poole’s comments are similar to those that Brittany Noble endured from her news director in Mississippi. 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. This was what happened to 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke in 2013. VanDykeattended Faith Christian Academy, a school that threatened her with expulsion after her mother rightfully reported the bullying. Also, it is hilarious how Christian schools teach children that God loves everyone only for them to stop extending that love to black people and their hair.

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, the removal of these rules would be supported and taken seriously—just Google Abigail Fisher.

In every case listed above, no matter the age, job position, or socioeconomic class, each of these victims was forced to choose between their identity and their freedom. Two states, FINALLY banning hair discrimination is not a success. Forty-eight other states still have the legal right to discriminate against black hair, and sadly I live in one. 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 assimilation on myself, I’ve learned to redirect that pressure towards any company that can accept black labor but not blackness itself.

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