Loni Wright was 7 years old when she was given her first relaxer for her hair.
By the time she was in high school, she didn’t even know what her natural hair looked like or that it could be considered beautiful.
“For generations of black women, that’s what they learned,” she said. “The hair that grew out of their head wasn’t acceptable.”
Wright, president of the Black Student Association at William & Mary, is just one of millions of black women who have grown up learning their natural hair not only isn’t beautiful, but won’t be accepted in the workplace.
It’s an act of discrimination black women have faced for decades, but a new bill passed in Virginia changing these ideas.
Known nationally as The Crown Act, it was passed in March and makes it illegal to discriminate based on hair texture and type historically associated with race, such as braids, locks and twists.
Virginia is the fourth state to pass the bill, which directly impacts the way black women’s hair is viewed in the workplace, Wright said.
It also represents a long history of strife between black women, their hair and society. For generations of women, they’ve been putting relaxer and harmful chemicals in their hair to try and achieve a more European, or white, look.
“In the grand scheme of things, we’re hindering our culture, we are portraying this image of a white woman,”said Brittni Williams, a clinical social worker for Weston Tidewater Community Services Board and Agape Foundation, Inc. “That plays a huge role in body image and it’s another form of trauma.”
Williams said hair plays an important role in the psyche of black women because they feel as though they have to maintain a certain image they can’t naturally achieve.
“It makes us feel like we have to submit to someone else instead of being authentic,” Williams said. “It’s less to do with hair and more of a way to control us and our culture.”
The stigma surrounding natural hair has been around for centuries, though. According to JSTOR, female slaves who worked in the house tried to mimic the hair of their enslavers, believing it made them look more acceptable. At the end of the 19th century, Madam C.J. Walker popularized the hair-straightening comb, which helped perpetuate the idea that straight hair led to economic advancement.
It’s only recently that the idea has started to change.
When Wright was in high school, she said she saw a commercial that featured a woman with an Afro. At first she thought it was a wig because she wasn’t used to seeing hair like that, but after doing research she became obsessed with the hairstyle and wanted to transition to natural hair to achieve the same look.
The difficult part was convincing her mother that it would be okay.
“The worst part when you transition is that a lot of the critique comes from black women who are telling you [natural hair] will hold you back,” Wright said. “And you can’t fault them for that because it’s the result of years and years of being told to look a certain way.”
Both Wright and Williams said older generations of black women struggle to accept their natural hair because they’ve been trained that it’s a determinant. So for younger women trying to learn how to love and be comfortable with their natural hair, the struggle becomes an even more complicated mix of social acceptance and self-love.
For black women in the professional world, the new bill helps address the discomfort associated between natural hair and economic advancement.
When Williams goes into work and considers her hairstyle, she’s nervous about including any colors, braids or weave because she doesn’t know how people will react. She feels as though she has to look like her coworkers or else she might be discriminated against.
She said she sees a change happening in the natural hair movement and hopes it will help black women feel safe with their natural beauty in the workplace.
“If a woman likes a weave, she should be able to wear them,” Williams said. “A person’s hair style does not determine their competency for a job.”
Nicole Tortoriello, the Secular Society Women’s Rights Advocacy Counsel for the ACLU of Virginia, is very excited about the new law.
“It’s really correcting these previously bad, poor decisions,” she said.
One example is a case in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals where a woman’s job offer was rescinded when she did not cut her dreadlocks.
The woman, Chastity Jones, had applied for a customer service position at a call center in Alabama and the company’s policy was hairstyles must be “business professional” with “no excessive hairstyles or unusual colors,” according to the case documents.
The company, Catastrophe Management Solutions, considered the dreadlocks an example of an excessive hairstyle and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit.
“The court found it was not racial discrimination,” Tortoriello said.
Discrimination based on natural hairstyle is now considered a form of racial discrimination under the new law, she added.
While she could not speak specifically about her clients, Tortoriello said these types of experiences are being shared widely on the news and she doesn’t think it is unusual.
“Someone’s natural hair texture for many people is related to their race and I think the law is catching up and understanding that these characteristics [are] a part of who someone is and no one should face discrimination at work because of who they are,” Tortoriello said.
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