Deeply Rooted: How Hair Discrimination Affects Black Women In The Workplace

Grooming and appearance policies are major facets in professional workplace settings. Over the last couple of years, however, these policies have been regarded as discriminatory for mostly Black employees because of what hairstyles are deemed professional. 

Many of these workplace attire codes rule out traditional Black hairstyles like dreadlocks, braids, and even hair in its natural state. The efforts to combat racial discrimination in the workplace have been growing. Companies have been reflecting on how to establish a diverse and inclusive workplace that celebrates employees of color. And hair discrimination puts to the forefront how deeply embedded these issues can be and how they meet at the intersection of both race and gender discrimination. 

According to the Dove 2019 Research Study, Black women are 3.4 times more likely to have their hair considered unprofessional.

Black women often feel pressured to change their hair to conform to the codes of the office, which is something 80% of the Black women surveyed agreed with. 

It’s easy for many people to brush off situations of hair discrimination as “just hair,” which not only minimizes the problem but the fight for Black people to maintain their cultural identity in professional environments. 

Illinois journalist Treasure Roberts went viral when she posted a tweet celebrating her first time wearing box braids on-air. In the tweet posted last August, Roberts said that a news director told her she wouldn’t land a job if she wore braids. But at a new job and celebrating a new milestone, 

Roberts had the last laugh writing, “Braids are professional.”

Hair discrimination doesn’t only occur in office settings. There are many instances of Black children that were suspended or sent home because their hairstyles weren’t seen as acceptable in accordance with school policies. 

In 2017, Mya and Deana Cook were two Black 15-year old students at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Massachusetts, who wore box braids to school and faced detention and prohibition from participating in school activities because the school said the sisters’ extensions violated school policy.

6-year old Clinton Stanley Jr. was sent back home on his first day of school at Book’s Christian Academy in Florida because of his dreadlocks. 

Institutions have been forced to confront their discriminatory codes and policies that have been instilled for decades and reflect on how harmful they have been for marginalized groups. Whether in schools or workplaces, discrimination on the basis of Black employees hair,

proves that this is a prevalent subset of racial discrimination that needs to be addressed. 

In 2019, the CROWN Coalition was founded. The national alliance — which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair — was founded by Dove, Color of Change, the National Urban League, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, with an aim to ban the discrimination of natural or protective styles in workplaces and schools.

The non-profit organization has made strides in making hair discrimination illegal with the CROWN Act. Eight states — New York, New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado, Virginia, and Washington — have passed their own version of the act. States like Michigan, Tennessee, and North Carolina have also considered passing this legislation of the CROWN Act.

In December, the New Orleans city council also voted to pass the CROWN Act, becoming one of the first cities to pass the legislation.

The CROWN Act has been one of the most successful movements to ban race-based hairstyle discrimination. With hopes of banning it nationwide, the gravity of the situation is acknowledged by people who can’t relate to it.

At Essence Fest, an annual event hosted by the magazine for Black women, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg shed some light on how the issue transcends across the country.

“Hair discrimination is racial discrimination, and we ought to recognize that at the national level, too,” he said.

Efforts like the CROWN Act have been one of the monumental motions to ensure that Black employees don’t feel the need to conform to standards that workplaces and offices deem okay.

There isn’t anything unprofessional about Black hair, whether it be in Bantu knots, twists, or in an afro.

Black women have an even more difficult time navigating corporate America because of both racial and gender implications. They are less likely to be promoted to managerial positions and get paid fairly compared to their white counterparts. 

In the realm of discrimination, it’s one of the most visible because it has to deal with appearance, but least talked about the problem when it comes to employees in a work setting. A lot of what is deemed as “professionalism” is dressed up as a way to uphold standards that never had Black women in mind in the first place. Companies are used to a certain look to define what professional means. As companies get used to changing often outdated standards, combatting all aspects of discriminatory policies is key.


Writer: Deidre Redhead