How Black Hair Is Repressed and Regulated, Legally, in the U.S.
Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.
In July, the U.S. Navy made a long-overdue change to its policy to allow women to wear their hair in dreadlocks, large buns, braids, and ponytails, a groundbreaking reversal most surprising for the fact that it had to happen in 2018. Yes, those styles had been banned, specifically to the detriment of women of color, before this summer.
Now, at a time when more black women than ever are rejecting Eurocentric beauty ideals to embrace natural styles, black hair continues to be regulated and restricted in many areas of American society. And, according to federal law, this is perfectly legal.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are allowed to enforce dress-code and appearance policies that include the regulation of hair. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces these laws, states employers can impose rules calling for “neutral hairstyles,” which have to be applied to everyone equally, regardless of race. Of course some hairstyles are more particular to people of certain races, and what constitutes “neutral” in terms of hair looks is entirely subjective. Especially when you look to history, which has been particularly unforgiving of black women’s hair.
In early African civilizations, hair held huge significance; hairstyles could be used to denote anything from tribe and social status, to fertility and death. Slavery stole that, as captive people’s hair was shorn against their will. In the 1700s in Louisiana, women of color were forced to cover their hair so it would stop attracting the attention of white men, using scarves that also announced their lower social status. By the end of slavery, it became routine for black women to replicate straight hairstyles for greater social mobility in mainstream (read: white) society. These often dangerous practices involved the use of harsh chemicals, but no harsher than the persistent racist ideology that straight hair is more beautiful than that with kinks and coils. And that part? It’s alive and well today.
In a nationwide survey, InStyle found that black women spend on average $1,114 a year on hair products and treatments, and 23% get their hair relaxed. But according to Mintel, sales of relaxers dropped 18.6 percent from 2013 to 2015, as more women abandoned the goal of attaining straight hair. There has been a definite shift toward reclaiming black hair in recent years, with celebrities like Solange Knowles, Viola Davis, Gabrielle Union, and more proudly showcasing natural hairstyles everywhere from song lyrics to the red carpet. Lupita Nyong'o and Colin Kaepernick, who are both prominent advocates for racial justice, are both known to wear their hair in Afro styles, perhaps calling to the look’s rise to prominence during the Civil Rights era as a symbol of black power and resistance.
Visibility like this may indicate that some of the internalized shackles on natural hair are being released, but women of color still battle the pervasive belief that their natural hair is unprofessional, unkempt, or in some way not to be considered “neutral.” In fact, a study in 2016 found an overwhelming bias in favor of smoother hair types, and against natural ones, which leaves black women vulnerable to discrimination. Ahead, read how black hair is unfairly targeted and regulated — in the workplace, in schools, and in the U.S. military — and with little to no protection from the law.
In the Military
Known as the document that defines U.S. army uniform regulations, the Army Regulation (AR) 670-1 has, in recent years, sparked backlash because of its prejudiced policing of black hair. The 2014 edition of the document actually outright banned service people from wearing dreadlocks and cornrows, among other popular black hairstyles — which some viewed as an attempt to white-wash the army. Many also called out the document’s racially biased language that shockingly described dreadlocks as “unkempt and matted,” claiming it demonstrated little to no attempt on the U.S. military’s part to understand black hair, the way it grows, and popular methods of styling it. After months of justified backlash, changes were later made to authorize some prohibited women’s hairstyles.
The most recent edition of the AR 670-1, from 2017, permits braids, cornrows, twists, and locks for servicewomen, though even then, there are restrictions against them. The document dictates, “each braid, cornrow, twist, or lock will be of uniform dimension, have a diameter no greater than 1/2 inch, and present a neat, professional, and well-groomed appearance.” It goes on to stipulate that any that “protrude (up or out) from the head are prohibited,” once again showing complete disregard for the way in which black hair grows and is styled. Words like “neat,” “professional,” and “well-groomed” have too often been weaponized against the black community, as their subjectivity leaves black people at risk of discrimination.
Unbelievably, it has taken over a year for the U.S. Navy to follow suit, as it did this July, to finally permit dreadlocks, braids, larger buns and ponytails for servicewomen. Maybe they’ll work on gender inclusivity next: Servicemen are still prohibited from wearing all of these hairstyles.
In the Workplace
In 2010, Chastity Jones, a black, dreadlocked Alabama woman reportedly had her job offer withdrawn, solely because of her hair, according to Vox. Jones had been offered a customer service role at the call center of Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) of Mobile, Alabama, following an interview. After that, a white HR manager allegedly told Jones she would have to get rid of her dreads, claiming they “tend to get messy” and violated the company’s grooming standards. When Jones wouldn’t, the company refused to hire her.
CMS’ grooming policy stated employees must have a “presentable image,” and it banned “excessive hairstyles.” And therein lies the issue: Once again, subjective language is up to the interpretation of whoever is doing the hiring and their own prejudices. Bias against black natural hair is well-documented, and it is this very bias that means work-sanctioned grooming policies disproportionately affect people of color. It seems like this should not be legal, but anti-discrimination laws offer little protection.
The U.S. EEOC took up this case on Jones’s behalf, but in 2014 lost the appeal. The federal court dismissed the claim, citing a “hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic,” therefore the decision didn’t explicitly break federal anti-discrimination laws. This disappointing decision reinforces harmful biases and continues to grant companies the legal right to police and discriminate against black hair. Jones’s most recent appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in May of this year was denied.
This case highlights how companies are able to hide language in their dress codes that systematically targets the kind of hair that people of color have – and then use these rules as justification for hiring decisions – without being called out for discrimination.
In 2013, then 7-year-old Tiana Parker was banned from wearing her hair in dreadlocks at her Oklahoma charter school. According to local news outlet KOKI-TV, Parker’s father (who is himself a barber) was told by school officials from the Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa that his daughter’s hairstyle wasn’t “presentable,” and felt her hair could "distract from the respectful and serious atmosphere [the school] strives for" – yet another example of black hair being policed because of the stereotype that it’s unkempt. Tiana’s parents later removed her from the school.
Following the incident, the school came under fire for its outright ban on “dreadlocks, afros and other faddish styles,” as stated in its handbook. Afros and dreads are two very popular methods of styling black hair, both with rich historical significance to black culture. The tone-deaf and shameful school policy calling these hairstyles “faddish” is, as many have pointed out, racially insensitive and could be viewed as discriminatory, as the rule overwhelmingly singles out black individuals. The school has since updated its policy and removed any references to particular hairstyles, according to Oklahoma outlet Newon6.com.
Unfortunately, Tiana Parker’s case is not unique. Just last year, 17-year-old Jenesis Johnson, who sports an afro, was told by a teacher at her Tallahassee, Florida school that her “hair needs to be fixed,” and that it’s “not neat and needs to be put in a style,” Johnson told local news outlet WCTV. Two days later, the eleventh grade student was called into the assistant principal’s office, she said, where she was reportedly told that her afro was “extreme and faddish and out of control.”
Jenesis told the local paper that she was already cognizant of her hair at school, “In every class I sit in the back so it won't cause a distraction," she said. Make no mistake: That is not a resolution to this issue. Black women need to be given every opportunity to sit in the front, to rise to the top — and any rule that prevents this from happening is one that needs to be rewritten.