I always hated how long it took to braid my hair, the pain I would feel as my mother parted my hair into two, the heat on my hair every week, and the fatigue of spending hours simply washing my hair. But above all, the lack of representation of my hair across the media and entertainment industry served as a strong motive for me to view straight hair as desirable, and my hair as ugly. As people in my school had looser curls/straight hair while my hair would easily frizz, the frustration I built grew into hatred on my natural hair.
As I carried this mindset throughout my childhood, I realized how much this took a toll on my cultural identity.
In 2018, it wasn’t until an MTV video appeared in my Snapchat feed of a Black female with 4c hair sharing tips on treating curly hair. I gasped in astonishment, never thinking that someone with a tighter hair type than mine would be on my iPhone at that moment. Although it was a 60-second video, the girl already felt like a big sister to me—she discussed the relationship between hair follicles and hair growth, as well as what porosity means, how regularly you should wash your hair, and various protective styles. I felt excited about seeing someone with hair like mine, and the first time in almost my entire life, I felt proud of having my hair.
I soon discovered a world online where natural haired people felt confident, sharing tips for people like me who were clueless about where to start with hair care. Although I found my community, I had to dig through the depths of the internet to find where I belonged. And that’s the problem.
While the world in 2020 had an uproar of protests for the incessant fight of racial justice and representation, many industries have partaken in virtual movements such as #TheShowMustBePaused, and some have even rebranded their name due to its racist implications like Aunt Jemima. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction that clears the pathway of ignorance, but what many people forget is that racism does not stop with skin color. When it comes to a black person, their melanin is not the only factor that people discriminate against, but almost all parts of our identity, including our hair. It’s not “just hair”, but a symbol of our culture and history.
Underrepresentation of natural hair
The lack of representation with natural hair spans across multiple platforms, including the workforce. While our protective styling is emblematic within the Black community, the rest of the world views it as unprofessional as straight hair is the standard of beauty. The microaggressions that have surfaced against braids, dreadlocks, cornrows, Bantu knots, and many other Black hairstyles have influenced the right for African Americans to wear these hairstyles at work and school.
Many schools across the world ban natural hairstyles and require Black kids with braids or even afros to cut it off so they can look presentable at school. Consequently, Black kids with afros constantly straighten their hair and wear relaxers, pressuring their overall self-confidence but more importantly, conforming to what society wants out of Black individuals.
One high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced to cut their natural hair for a wrestling match. This exemplifies discrimination at its finest as the referee began to cut the person’s dreadlocks. Additionally, a girl from Louisiana was sent home from her private Roman Catholic school because of her braided hair extensions.
The problem here is blatantly apparent: when these tints of discrimination start at youth in school and young Black kids view these practices as normal, they grow up with an unrealistic image that straight hair is ideal. This is beyond a hair issue, but a civil rights issue that grants political and social authority to higher powers.
For adults in corporate America, they are at the age where they know their hair is not what their boss or manager would want. Thus, most of the time they do not even wear it out, but rather cover up their identity with wigs, perms, relaxers, etc. Almost 90% of black women have straightened their hair at some point.
Especially when delving into the legality of this kind of discrimination, courts view Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin) as an exception with natural hair since they tend to see hairstyles as a choice. Therefore, employees can legally dismiss natural hair.
However, these legal landscapes are gradually evolving. On July 3, 2019, California made history as the first state to ban natural hair discrimination with its CROWN act. Senator Holly J. Mitchell pointed out in the CROWN act that “the struggle to maintain what society has deemed a ‘professional image’ while protecting the health and integrity of their hair remains a defining and paradoxical struggle in (black employees’) work experience, not usually shared by their non-black peers.”
New York City followed as the second state to ban natural hair discrimination. Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement, “For much of our nation’s history, people of color — particularly women — have been marginalized and discriminated against simply because of their hairstyle or texture. By signing this bill into law, we are taking an important step toward correcting that history and ensuring people of color are protected from all forms of discrimination.”
Holding the media accountable
While natural hair discrimination has always existed, particularly originating from slavery, these racist ideologies have been reinforced in our modern world because of mass media. Advertisements have been the first cases where we’ve seen natural hair discrimination on TV. The 1980s and 1990s were a time where Black hairstyles started to be in style mainly due to the music industry, but at the same time, many advertisements pressured Black people, especially Black women, to relax their hair. The advertisements prompted Black women to alter their features beyond hair and view white people as the ultimate beauty standard to consider themselves as attractive.
Not only were Black women excluded in these kids of hair care ads, but they were physically excluded in beauty stores, too. Many stores often did not include hair products suited for natural hair, and if they did, they had a separate aisle for Black people. This is modern-day segregation.
Stores like Walmart have a record of hair discrimination as they used to lock up Black beauty and hair products. With their inevitable racial lawsuit and fire for subtly reinforcing microaggressions, Walmart decided they will no longer lock up Black beauty products.
In 2018, H&M was called out for a controversial ad in which a girl with 4c hair was shown with “messy hair”. Many news companies and even folks in the Black community expressed their disappointment in H&M’s attempt to be racially inclusive in their ads. People were particularly angry that her hair looked poorly treated and pointed to the fact that it was obvious no other Black person was in the room.
However, the issue was not at the fault of H&M, but the fault of the public for associating 4c hair as “messy”. While it is true that a white-owned company like H&M does not know how to treat the complexities of 4a to 4c hair, a girl embracing their 4c hair at that state should not cause such controversy. When we commonly associate these types of hair with poor treatment and a messy look, we subconsciously feed on the expectations that society has for our standards of beauty. For many girls with 4c hair, the Black girl in the H&M ad is how their hair looks every day, and we need to start teaching these girls that their hair is not an issue and should not cause controversy in the world.
With other platforms besides advertisements, the entertainment industry must be held accountable for their failure to represent all hair types. Many kid’s TV shows have started to include black girls and boys in a majority white cast, but when these black characters have features that lean towards Eurocentric features, it is blatantly obvious that these shows are including these kinds of characters for diversity points. The moral of the story is this: a light-skinned girl with looser curls does not represent a dark-skinned girl with kinky hair. While we belong to the same community, Black women with 4c hair should still not be fighting for inclusivity in their own community.
15-year-old Layla Hussein is an aspiring journalist, entrepreneur, and coder from The Bronx, NY. Growing up in The Bronx has allowed Layla to quickly understand the racial disparities across the globe and be an advocate for change. Her passions including writing about BIPOC issues, gender inequity, immigration, and general current events that are affecting loved ones around her. She is the Co Founder of GenZ Girls, an organization that spotlights influential females in marginalized communities since the media fails to do so. She is also the founder of Journals of Color, an upcoming literary magazine just for teens in The Bronx.