Black women receive more intense public and private scrutiny over their hair styles or color choices than any other group. Black hair is tied to a personal and collective identity; it tells stories and relays histories; it is a source of pride. Although there is no uniform texture, style or color, Black hair is representative of the strength and survival of African people. Hair grooming and styling were embedded in ancient African life and were sources of pride. Used as conveyors of messages, a language of sorts, specific hairstyles (or the lack thereof), various adornments, and headpieces often relayed ethnicity, marital status, age, religion, social standing, and/or geographic origin. Believing that it was powerful, hair was used by medicine men for protection and to stay connected with the ancestors. At the core, Black hair still denotes an undeniable power that is often seen as intimidating, yet regal. Black women owning their hair is empowering, and sacred. And yet, Black hair is, and has been, under attack.
Policies and practices have been implemented to restrict, control, and dictate Black hair styling options resulting in numerous court cases centered on this race-based hair discrimination. One of the earliest cases was against American Airlines in 1981 for their policy banning braids. Following suit, Marriott Hotel, Windsor Court Hotel, Abercrombie & Fitch, United Parcel Post and Federal Express represent a few of the companies who have been hauled into court for not just banning braids and locs but even blond hair on Black women. More recent incidents of hair discrimination have targeted Black children, both girls and boys. This ranges from teachers and coaches cutting students’ hair to policies banning certain ‘Black’ styles. These and similar aggressions across the country prompted the development of critically needed legislation that allows for Creating a Respectful & Open World for Natural Hair (the CROWN Act). Introduced in 2019, the CROWN Act prohibits race-based hair discrimination in employment and educational opportunities. To date, twenty states and the House of Representatives have passed the CROWN Act. The hope was that it would pass the Senate as well thereby making it federal law. It did not pass however it will be reintroduced in the spring.
Although you may not know anyone who has filed a law suit, I am sure you know at least one person who has been the target of some level of race-based hair aggression or discrimination. I have worn my hair in almost every conceivable way that Black women embrace. I have had braids (all types), twists, finger waves, relaxers, innovation dry curl, texturizers, locs and what I call freedom hair. Over the years I have experienced my share of microaggressions ranging from questions and statements such as: Why would you do THAT to your hair?; Will it stay like that?; Do you think your locs make you look more Black?; I know you think “it” looks more professional this way but “it” looks better the other way; Having a bad hair day?; Did you do your hair?; Boy your hair is wild today; and, Can you calm it down some? As the only Black woman holding a senior level administrative position, I was pressured by an employer to participate in the then popular ice-bucket challenge at work and then ridiculed when I wore something to protect my hair. I have been told that my hair was too wild, too unkempt, and I was militant because of my hairstyle selections.
At different periods in my hair history, I have resorted to cutting my hair short to hide from this hair politics that takes a toll on everyone regardless of texture. But I am working through my issues. Today, I do not own a comb. Using one sends me back to the sounds of breaking strands from my childhood when I would get my hair “done.” Instead, my freedom hair is free. It may be braided one day and twisted a few weeks later. Perhaps it is adorned with shells or jewelry. I am no longer ashamed or feel guilty when it grows beautifully big and wild. Now when I cut it, it is because I want to, not because I am running from public scrutiny. There are days when my hair receives more love and attention than others, and days when it falls into a better groove than it did the day before. Whatever the temperate of the moment, I take it in stride. I remind myself that there is power in looking the way I want and I own that. I also remind myself of the personal and cultural significance of my hair, and, that there are never, ever, any bad hair days.
Maria DeLongoria, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History
Medgar Evers College - CUNY