Embracing African American hairstyles in American culture

By Ke’Aysha Strand-Young

After a long day working the drive-thru at Taco Bell, my feet were swollen, my head was pounding, and I was running on two hours of sleep from the night before.

I was working up a sweat while sweeping up the restaurant, just about to lose my cool, when suddenly I heard my boss walk up behind me.

“Don’t you pay attention!” he screamed. “If I catch you with those braids hanging out of that hairnet one more time, you’ll be out the door!”

He continued to yell at me because he thought that my braids were too big, and my type of hairstyle did not belong in a place of business.

I was hurt and embarrassed, but this isn’t anything unusual. Many black women have experienced discrimination because of their hair in schools and in workplaces.

African American hairstyles shouldn’t be policed because hair is a form of expression and there’s no law prohibiting certain hairstyles. People should also learn how to embrace hair of all different textures and styles, not just the hairstyles that meet society’s definition of conventional beauty: straight, silky hair.

Jallae Brannan, background, styles JoAnn Harris’ hair, January 3, 2013, in Kansas City at Shampoo by Salon LaRon.
(Allison Long/Kansas City Star/MCT)

Hair is a form of expression, and since the First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, it should protect the right to wear a particular hairstyle, just as it protects other forms of expression.

Furthermore, hairstyles, such as headwraps, bantu knots, and corn rows, hold a significant value in African American history and are worn to express and embrace African American culture.

According to “The African American Woman’s Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols,” by Helen Bradley Gabriel, headwraps and scarves date back to slavery.

Slaves would wear headscarves for sun protection, and some slave masters would force slaves to wear scarves to prevent the spread of lice.

Many African Americans have incorporated these hairstyles in their everyday life to express their love and show appreciation for the African American culture, which they shouldn’t be stopped from doing.

How an individual chooses to wear her hair doesn’t cause any physical harm to anyone, nor does it pose a threat, so someone shouldn’t be fired or denied service because of how she chooses to wear their hair.

Second, there is no written law stating certain hairstyles aren’t allowed in public schools or the workplace.

In 1786, Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miro passed Tignon laws that mandated black women cover their hair with a Tignon (head wrap), to return the free woman of color to the inferior status associated with slavery, according to the National Park Service.

Even though the Tignon laws ended 230 years ago, parts of it are still around, resulting in incidents of discrimination in the workplace and schools.

In 2010, Chastity Jones accepted a job offer from Catastrophe Management Solutions as a customer service representative in Alabama, but the offer was rescinded because Jones refused to cut her dreadlocks, according to Chante Griffin of Jstor Daily.

The hiring manager reportedly told Jones that dreadlocks weren’t an appropriate hairstyle to wear at the company because “they tend to get messy.”

In New Jersey, Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson was forced to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the match because his hair didn’t comply with the guidelines, according to a referee at the match.

Both cases of discrimination resulted from an individual’s personal perception of certain hairstyles and what he thinks is appropriate and inappropriate for the workplace, not because of a written law.

Certainly, there’s nothing stopping companies and schools from enforcing certain dress codes and policies, but it all boils down to how far is too far when it comes to handling these issues.

You can’t legally force someone to change her appearance simply because you don’t like it.

Most importantly, we all come from different ethnic backgrounds and everybody is different, so it’s time to start embracing and recognizing what makes people unique, instead of judging and criticizing because you don’t understand their style.

LaToya Rivers, owner of Espresso Culture, in Kansas City, Missouri, unravels coils of Suzetta Parks’ hair, January 2, 2013, as LaToya’s daughter, JaCoya Rivers, watches in the background. Natural black hairstyles, like popcorn curls, twists and short Afros are back.
(Allison Long/Kansas City Star/MCT)

For years women have tried to conform to society’s vision of beautiful hair, so hairstyles have evolved over time, especially within the African American community. In the 1900’s, Madam C.J. Walker developed a variety of hair care products for black hair, her most famous product being the relaxer.

But CNBC reports that sales of relaxers have experienced a 34 percent decrease since 2009, according to Mintel multicultural analyst Tonya Roberts.

More black women were wearing their natural unprocessed hair and in protective styles, including cornrows, box braids, and weaves.

Consequently, there has been a shift in what society deems as conventional beauty, which would be straightened and more tamed hair.

Now people are going against society’s norms and starting to stand out — and some aren’t pleased because they aren’t used to change.

What works for some may not work for others, and that is totally fine, but that doesn’t give anybody the right to judge and critique people who are just trying to be themselves.

“It’s time to start embracing and recognizing what makes everyone unique.”

– Ke’Aysha Strand-Young

Critics may argue that certain hairstyles don’t meet their companies’ or schools’ guidelines, aren’t hygienic, or aren’t professional at work or in school.

However, these arguments aren’t grounds for discrimination against someone.

California and New York City both have passed a bill to protect black employees and students by outlawing discrimination against people who wear natural hairstyles, according to NPR. There are no reports of other states trying to resolve the issue, as of yet.

There are still employers and educators that have chosen not to follow the bill. As of right now, there are no consequences if you do not follow the bill, but there should be.
If an employer chooses not to follow the order, a small fine should be enforced for violating the code.

And if you’re still not convinced, consider this: What if everyone was forced to have straight hair or forced to have the same hairstyle? How would that make you feel?

Would you still feel the same way about this issue, or would you want to be able to express yourself however you wanted, without backlash or fear of being discriminated against?

In the words of the wise Maya Angelou, “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you are.”

Contact Ke’Aysha Strand-Young at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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