The discrimination of afro hair in the employment context

In recent decades, there have been reported numerous cases of black women being discriminated against in the workplace for their natural afro hair or hairstyles such as braids, often considered "unprofessional".

In 2015, Lara Odoffin, a graduate at Bournemouth University, received this email after a job interview: “Unfortunately, we cannot accept braids – it is simply part of the uniform and grooming requirements we get from our clients. If you are unable to take them out I unfortunately won’t be able to offer you any work”. In the same year, Simone Powderly, a black British woman, was asked to change her hairstyle in order to be hired, as her braids were not "suitable" for the sale of high quality products. In 2016, an employer at London's high-fashion department store Harrods was reported to target black employees, requesting chemical straightening of their hair to continue working. Although these events deal with hair, the motivations are linked to racial marginalization, which also includes discrimination against physical traits, such as skin colour and hair.

Parmer (2004) explains that physical beauty is a very important factor, as it affects people's social relationships, partner choice and job opportunities. The hierarchy of beauty puts straight, long and preferably blonde hair first, along with light skin and eyes. Women with these qualities or who conform to these standards are called “conventionally attractive”. Although hair is a symbol of female beauty, this hierarchy sees curly and afro hair as "unkempt" or "ugly" and, consequently, unsuitable for many social contexts where "conventional beauty" reigns. Undoubtedly, the problem is not having or wanting straight, long and blond hair, but a system that - first of all - bases the value of women on their beauty, and consequently, that uses only one type of beauty as measurement.

It must be recognized that for black women, the “hairstyle dilemma” is not only an end in itself, but is linked to both race and gender issues. Regarding the issue of race, the ideals of beauty see black women as less attractive, since their appearances do not coincide with the beauty attributed to the fair skin, thin noses and straight hair, which are part of the Caucasian aesthetic. Furthermore, they are often labeled as ‘tough’ or ‘harsh’, considered to possess attributes that men typically would have, thus coming to speak of the "defeminization" of black women. Such definitions and considerations have strong consequences on the job opportunities for black women. In 2019, a study conducted by the brand Dove reported that black women were “80% more likely than white women to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work”. Moreover, “black women were 50% more likely to report being sent home or know of a Black woman who was sent home from the workplace because of their hair”. In fact, many black women feel the pressure of having to find alternatives to be considered professional, such as wearing wigs, straightening their hair or even using chemical straighteners, known as relaxers, with a high risk of damage to the scalp and skin. However, it is also important to mention that many women choose to use these alternatives to keep up with fashion, for convenience or for other personal choices, and not because of external reasons or feelings of inferiority.

Unfortunately, stories like the ones listed above do not only happen in the workplace. In fact, many black women find themselves in cases of discrimination from a young age. In 2018, Ruby Williams, a young British girl was sent home multiple times from her school in East London because her afro hair was "too big". There are also other cases of schools in Jamaica and South Africa that have banned the use of afro hairstyles for students. These messages are highly harmful to the self-esteem and body image of young girls. It is also not difficult to find hair-straightening products intended for black girls, who are subjected to periodic treatments from an early age to appear more "orderly". While Rapunzel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Barbie are part of a safe reality for white girls, black girls learn that "white beauty" equals happiness.

Nevertheless, handling afro hair requires special care, as excessive manipulation and straightening of the curls can cause negative effects such as breaking the hair, as well as pain to the scalp. Moreover, the speed at which afro hair grows can be slowed due to the follicles being staying in the telogen stage – or resting phase - for a longer period of time. Therefore, using methods such as braids, locks, twists and knots, also called protective hairstyles, does not just mean being trendy, but it helps to keep hair healthy and strong. Going back in time, afro hair has had a very rich history. Different hairstyles and adornments have originated from Africa, varying between cultures and countries and representing important social and religious meanings for communities. During the African slave trade, women hid seeds, rice and legumes inside cornrows - a type of braid plaited flat along the head. This style of braids was also used as escape maps from plantation fields. In the United States, with the Black Power Movement of the 1950s, the famous Afro hairstyle of African American activists, known as "the natural", was part of black pride and was linked to the political changes of the time.

In December 2017, magazine ELLE released a documentary on the video platform YouTube entitled Braided: an American Hair Story, featuring actress Lupita Nyong’o, writer Ayana Byrd and other celebrities and stylists from African and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. The documentary discussed the issue of appropriation of African hairstyles in mainstream media and among non-black celebrities, such as reality tv personality Kim Kardashian West. When a non-black person adopts hairstyles of African origins, the style is perceived as a fashion accessory, as the individual experiences the hairstyle in a context of whiteness privilege, or racial privilege. Here lays the concept of cultural appropriation: when the habits and customs of certain communities become part of popular culture as "products" to be consumed. The video showed the disapproval felt towards the “whitewashing” of many hairstyles originating from black populations, such as cornrow braids renamed “Kim Kardashian braids” or “boxer braids” after Kardashian West and female UFC fighters popularised the hairstyle amongst non-black groups. However, black women continue to face discrimination when having the same hairstyles. On the other hand, when a black woman changes her appearance to be considered a "respectable", "intelligent" and "tasteful" person, she will still be perceived as a black woman.

In recent years, there has been an increase in black women who are now feeling free to choose their style, whether it is opting for straight hair or traditional African hairstyles to feel equally as beautiful and professional. Many black women, who are also successful and highly educated, now wear Afro hairstyles to show their natural beauty, while transmitting self-confidence and going against the standards, both intentionally and unintentionally. Moreover, a decline in the use of relaxers has been attributed to awareness of the negative results of chemical treatments and to a number of social media influencers and YouTube videos showing different ways to take care of natural afro hair.

In 2019, the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair) was passed in California. Put forward by Democratic state senator Holly J. Mitchell, this act has been established to tackle discrimination against race-based hairstyles and hair and to challenge the notion of ‘professional hair’. Since then, other six American states have passed the Act, with the hope that that a similar legislation will be introduced around the world. However, the issue is far from over and, as of 2020, black women can still be fired or not be hired because of their hair.

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The discrimination of afro hair in the employment context

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