Untangling the Impact of Hair Discrimination at Work on Black Women

Untangling the Impact of Hair Discrimination at Work on Black Women

In the corporate towers, bustling offices, and even the most casual work environments, a silent struggle plays out daily for Black women: hair discrimination. 

It’s a deeply personal battleground, where coils, kinks, curls, and braids become more than just hairstyles. They are markers of identity, culture, and self-expression. Yet, these very elements often subject Black women to scrutiny, bias, and even exclusion in the workplace.

For many Black women, the workplace isn’t just about climbing the corporate ladder or achieving professional milestones. It’s about balancing authenticity with conformity, asserting identity in the face of discrimination. It’s about deciding whether to straighten those curls to fit in or boldly embrace them, risking judgment and bias.

Hair discrimination is about power dynamics, systemic racism, and deeply ingrained stereotypes. It’s about being told that your natural hair is “unprofessional” or “distracting,” while Eurocentric standards of beauty are upheld as the norm. 

And the worst part is, despite the long-standing struggle for equality, it still exists today. 

Today, we will delve into the intricate layers of hair discrimination at work, exploring its profound impact on Black women’s careers, identities, and well-being.

Understanding Hair Discrimination

Hair discrimination is a deeply personal issue, particularly for Black women navigating professional environments. Beyond being a matter of style, it’s a reflection of identity, culture, and heritage.

Imagine walking into your workplace, feeling confident and ready to tackle the day’s challenges. But as you step through the door, you can sense the subtle stares, the raised eyebrows, the whispers. Your natural hair, a source of pride and connection to your roots, suddenly becomes a point of scrutiny.

A perfect example comes from an August 2023 news article where Chick-fil-A sent one of its teenage employees home over her “unnatural” hair color. 

Autumn Williams, a 16-year-old Black girl, who had dyed her hair blonde, was told at work that her hair violated the dress code standards at Chick-fil-A.* Williams was asked to leave work immediately and didn’t return even after the fast food joint revised their statement and welcomed her back.

Beyond these subtle cues lie more explicit forms of discrimination. Some workplaces enforce grooming standards that don’t account for the diverse textures and styles of Black hair. 

Policies that label natural hairstyles as “unprofessional” or “distracting” force you to choose between conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards or risking your professional reputation.

While progress has been made, legal protections against hair discrimination are still catching up. A 2023 CROWN study revealed that despite the progress, hair discrimination continues to be a widespread issue for Black women in the workplace.

It also highlighted how 66% of Black women change their hair for a job interview, out of which 41% preferred to straighten out their curls.  And the reason behind this change? Well, that’s because even today, Black women’s hair is 2.5 times more likely to be seen as unprofessional than others. 

By leading more Black women to use chemical hair relaxers, the bias also exposes them to an increased risk of life-threatening diseases. TorHoerman Law notes uterine cancer, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer as major threats resulting from the frequent use of hair relaxers.

As an outcome, the manufacturers of these relaxers – including LO’real, Motions Hair, and Softsheen-Carson – face legal scrutiny for not warning their consumers about these risks. Women who have suffered these diagnoses following the usage of hair relaxers have filed hair relaxer lawsuits against them. 

Because these lawsuits spanned various jurisdictions, they’ve now been consolidated into a Multidistrict Litigation (MDL). When the lawsuit succeeds, the settlement paid by the defendants will be divided evenly among the victims. 

Hair Discrimination at Work – The Impact on Black Women

For Black women, navigating the complexities of workplace dynamics often involves an additional layer of scrutiny and judgment: their hair. It’s a deeply personal aspect of their identity, yet it’s frequently subjected to discrimination and bias, shaping their experiences and opportunities in profound ways.

Imagine being a Black woman preparing for a job interview. You’ve spent hours perfecting your resume, but glancing in the mirror, you wonder if your natural curls are “appropriate” enough for the corporate world.  Will they be seen as professional, or will they be met with skepticism and disdain?

Hair discrimination transcends mere appearances; it’s deeply intertwined with power dynamics and systemic racism. Black women often face criticism for their natural hair, being told it’s “unprofessional” or “unnatural”. This pressure to conform to a narrow definition of acceptability can leave them feeling undervalued and sidelined in their careers.

The CROWN Act, short for Creating a Respectable and Open World for Natural Hair, was first passed as a bill on March 18, 2022. The intent behind the bill was to strengthen the protection of employees and students against hair-based discrimination. 

Even though the Act was introduced over two years ago, only 24 states in the U.S. have passed it so far. The motion for a federal passage is still in its early stages. 

This delay alone speaks volumes about the country being far from the comprehensive acceptance of Black hair, especially in workplaces.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What percent of black women straighten their hair?

The US market of chemical hair straighteners and relaxers reports that 60% of their customers are black women.

How does hair impact identity?

Hair plays a vital role in the social identities of women, which is especially true for black women. It helps them feel a sense of belongingness within a particular group or culture. 

Do jobs discriminate against dyed hair?

It depends on the kind of job you’re interviewing for. Companies that aren’t primarily based on creative pursuits might object to unnatural hair colors in their prospective employees. 

The discrimination the Black women face for their hair is a painful reality that we’re struggling to fight off even today. These biases not only create professional hurdles for them but also impact their mental health negatively.  

With a collective resolve to bring more awareness about the unjust nature of these biases, we can hope to defeat hair discrimination f