Hair Discrimination and Global Politics of Anti-Blackness, Part 1


Sao Paulo, SP / Brazil – July 25, 2017: Group of women smile as they pose for a photo during a march to mark the International Afro Latin American and Afro Caribbean Women’s Day. (Shutterstock)

Recent cases of Black hair/style regulation and punishment in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States reveal a deep-seated hostility between Black identity/hair and broader society. Policies discriminating against Black hairstyles in schools have ignited a level of resistance among Black youth that has not been seen in decades, which has garnered support from Black Lives Matter. The emerging forms of resistance highlight the treatment of Black hair as an extension of anti-blackness where Black youth have consistently been the primary targets of policies that are far from benign and race-neutral. Advocates have called attention to the ways Black youth consistently slip through the cracks of legal protection through active attempts to outlaw blackness with hairstyles and texture as the target. Drawing on U.S. Black Feminists’ arguments from the 1970s-1980s, advocates consistent critiques of the legal system’s role in upholding racially discriminatory policies through privileging (normalizing) aspects of some cultural aesthetics via the creation of arbitrary boundaries of professionalism that are supposedly color-blind while penalizing other cultural and racial aesthetics.  

U.S. critical race scholars have pointed out that color-blind racial formations are as equally powerful as color-conscious racism that relied on a deep-seated logic of segregation. This latter form was applied to all aspects of social structures and cultural representations. Color-blind racial formation replicates racial hierarchies without overt attention to race itself. How the legal system defines hair and hair texture as separate from race ethnicity provides the avenue for “color-blind” policies to target Black hair textures. For many Black people, hair is intrinsic to their blackness. It is, however, the perverse reading of Black identity, in color and hair textures, that remains a marked feature constructed by anti-blackness. As evidenced by Black youth bearing the psychological burden attached to penalties for wearing braids, dreadlocks, and their natural hair, the extensive policing of Black hair is an important site in examinations of global expressions of anti-blackness and systemic racism.

Within this context, Black hair discrimination is endemic to the relationship between Black identity and Eurocentrism. The recent passing of legislation in California and Illinois banning hair discrimination illustrates this ongoing relationship, thus alerting us to the enduring nature of W.E.B. DuBois’ 1903 concept of the color line in the 21st century. As Lewis Gordon points out in his discussion of the color line, systems of exclusion and exploitation are constructed in relation to darker to lighter skin color of all races. The politics of hair texture, hair maintenance, and hairstyles follow the same trajectory to a push towards whiteness that is often overlooked. ‘The Black’ (including Black hair textures) becomes subject to interpretations linked to derogatory perceptions across time and space. Thus, the force of the color-line lies in the creation of normal and abnormal identities. Widespread policing of Black hair textures ensures that Black identity falls in the latter, revealing pernicious forces of anti-blackness.

On January 1, 2020, the CROWN Act in California expanded the definition of race in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and Education Code to ensure protection in workplaces and K-12 public and charter schools. The CROWN Act prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and texture. The Act comes 40 years after the 1981 ruling of Rogers v. American Airline, which legally upheld employers’ right to prohibit categorically the wearing of braided hairstyles in the workplace. As Paulette Caldwell (1991) puts it, Black women’s hair is one of those issues for which they “slip through the cracks of legal protection, and the gender components of racism and the race component of sexism remain hidden.” Rogers v. American Airlines was the first U.S. court ruling that granted corporations the right to ban braided hairstyles in the workplace. The plaintiff, a Black woman, charged American Airlines with discrimination; she lost because hairstyles were considered by the courts as independent of race and gender discrimination. In 1987, Black political leaders in Washington D.C. threatened to boycott the Hyatt Hotel over a similar case. The company prohibited Black women from wearing braids, which fell under the company’s policy that prohibited “extreme and unusual hairstyles.”

Policies targeting Black hair were a continuation of the perceived threat of Afro hairstyles that emerged during the 1960s as a celebration of self-esteem and a claim to cultural identity. Those who chose Afros faced opposition and were associated with the growing unrest coming out of the U.S. national media coverage of the 1960s Civil Rights protests and, especially scholar-activist Angela Davis. As a result, many white people associated Afro hairstyles with resistance, unpopular political views, and uncontrolled and dangerous sexuality. For Caldwell (1991), Black hair is one example that illustrates how Black women withstood the worst of racist intimidation resulting from the imposition of Western standards of physical beauty. Moreover, this type of racist intimidation begins early in the lives of Black children. Such intimidation is openly used as a crucial instrument designed to limit the economic and social position of Black women. Joyce A. Ladner (1971) argued that this type of racism is aimed at something more than an attack on Black identity. In her work on Black womanhood in the U.S., Ladner draws on Kardiner and Ovesey (1951) study to emphasize that Black submission is the overall objective of racism and racist stereotypes:

Being a Negro in America is less of a racial identity than a necessity to adopt a subordinate social role. The effects of playing the “Negro” role are profound and lasting. Evaluating himself by the way others react to him, the negro may grow into the servile role in time, the person and the role become indistinguishable.

Ladner’s understanding of the Negro as being more of a relational status than an identity offers insight into the relationship between Black hair and broader society, that the former requires an interrogation of themes of Being and Freedom. LaRose Parris’s 2015 seminal book, Being Apart: Theoretical and Existential Resistance in Africana Literature, draws on Fanon in examining themes of anti-African racism in colonial identity formation. Within the context of anti-African racism, the politics of Black hair is situated as a socio-political space rooted in the Africana experiences of Western chattel slavery. The regulation of Black hair corresponds to Fanon’s analysis of the ideological structure of colonialism. It apparently aspires to completely eradicate native culture, history, citizenship, and language and replacing them with European systems of culture, history, and citizenship (Parris, 2015). The extensive policing of Black hair illustrates that colonization remains an unresolved and incomplete project, one that seeks to undermine Black self-pride by consistently demanding a move to whiteness by making Black hair less Black.

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Adele Norris

Adele N. Norris is a Senior lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Adele’s scholarship engages black feminist methodologies to explore state-sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies. Follow her on Twitter @ANNorris16.

Comments on “Hair Discrimination and Global Politics of Anti-Blackness, Part 1

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    A very good article. I enjoyed reading it, even though I was torn as I read and saw and I lived through the struggle between the Negro, Black and now African Americans. As a race of people we still have so many stereotypes to overcome and put to rest. The bottom line is this: It is okay to be a Negro, Black or African American just as it is to be: Caucasian, Vietnamese, Orientals, Arabs, Muslims etc. Because in God’s Eyes: We are all the Same! It is great to call out the desperate treatment when we see it! This is how we become a more perfect union/ world.

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    Love this really important article. As a psychologist understanding this dynamic between hair, subjugation, and identity is crucial in my work with African descendants. Healing this early wound of self-denial is an important foundation for freedom. I worked with NYC Commission of Human Rights to make it the first jurisdiction in the world to develop guidelines to product Black peoples rights to wear their hair naturally, free from discrimination. I also made a film and traveled the world offering healing workshops. I hope you can check out our film; Back to Natural

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