Hair Discrimination, Anti-Black Racism, and Resistance

Children of Black ethnicity are seen in a beauty salon in the city of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, October 13, 2017 (Joa Souza/ Shutterstock)

This is the second of a two-part series about discrimination and Black hair. For part one, click here. 

The politics of regulating Black hair is a contemporary example of what Frantz Fanon refers to as imperial hegemony, the supplanting and reconditioning of the colonized subject at the (individual) psychological and (social) institutional levels. Such politics has been on full display in the 21st century. Black people, women and girls especially, continue to engage in acts of resistance demanding the right to wear their hair as it naturally grows from their scalp and to wear protective hairstyles. Navigating the tensions of state-imposed hair policies is a burden that is not shared equally by society. It inflicts psychological harm upon Black children that remains invisible, especially when compared to widespread coverage of police brutality.

On September 15, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, covering Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, upheld the 2014 ruling that maintained that it is permissible for employers to ban dreadlocks based on a claim that discrimination had to be based on immutable characteristics. Since hair and hairstyles are changeable, the ruling is considered a “race-neutral policy,” therefore, not covered under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, and national origin. Several cases emerged within the past decade of Black children who were punished because their hair violated school dress codes. In 2013, seven-year-old Tiana Parker of Tulsa, Oklahoma was sent home on the first day of school ostensibly because her dreadlocks violating school policy. The policy stated that “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, Afros, mohawks and other faddish styles are unacceptable;” the school deemed such hairstyles could “distract from the respectful and serious atmosphere it strives for.”  The specific identification of hairstyles predominately associated with Black youth implicates the educational system as an ideological participant in a state apparatus that perpetuates and enforces European imperialism. According to Fanon, institutions justify mechanisms (institutional policies) designed to control, contain and condition colonized subjects through myths of Black inferiority, regarded as an evil that must submit to imperial domination. For Tiana’s parents, such school codes made their seven-year-old daughter feel like something was wrong with her appearance. Tiana returned home in tears. Her parents’ response echoed Gus ‘Jett’ Hawkins’ response when Gus was sent home at the age of four because his braids were regarded as a violation of the dress code at his Chicago school.  After this, his mother began a campaign against hair discrimination. She averred that such school policies further stigmatized children’s hair, ultimately affecting educational development.  On August 13, 2021, Illinois passed the Jett Hawkins Law that bans ‘hairstyle discrimination’ in schools.

On September 28, 2016, a young South African girl, Zulaikha Patel, led her peers in a silent protest against racist school policies that condemned natural Black hairstyles. Only thirteen years old at the time, Zulaikha’s Afro was said to violate Pretoria Girls High School policy. She filed a complaint against the school over racist policies requiring Black girls to straighten their “untidy” natural hair and to speak English only, policies which confirmed her assumptions She justifiably stood up to power. Instead of being met with compassion, Zulaikha was met with hostility and threats of arrest. One of the young protesters stated, “We were told we’re too loud; have no manners; we weren’t allowed to speak our own language, it’s rude.” In the United States, during the same time, Colin Kaepernick, a professional football player, gained global attention when he took a knee during the U.S. national anthem to protest racial injustice, specifically police brutality against Black people. Immediately following his protest, he was verbally attacked for his choice of an Afro hairstyle. Some of his peers—other Black men—implored him to change his Afro for a more ‘respectable’ look. Like Zulaikha, Kaepernick’s Afro dominated the discussion, ignoring his message of racial injustice and athletic ability.

Similar cases surfaced in New Zealand in 2021. In February 2021, an African-American high school student in Dunedin was asked to ditch the cornrows he had worn for an entire year. There was a sudden insistence on a policy that deemed his braids to be unacceptable and in violation of school codes governing attire. This case in Dunedin occurred during the same time a 12-year-old Rotorua student made New Zealand headlines for being called the N-word and bullied over her hair texture. September 15, 2021, in Britain, a petition calling for an amendment to the U.K. Equality Act to include hair. This was an effort to protect Afro-textured hair and had garnered over 80,000 signatures. The petition was in response to several cases in which British students were reprimanded for wearing fades, dreadlocks, braids, and natural Afros.   

Black Lives Matter has played an active role in advocating for Black students who have been suspended, arrested, and banned from proms and extracurricular activities. In 2015, Black Lives Matter Toronto rallied in front of the Toronto District School Board headquarters for a thirteen-year-old girl whom the school’s principal disciplined over her hair. Early 2017, two sisters of Boston, Massachusetts, were given several infractions for sporting braids that violated the school dress code. The school’s policy bans hair extensions, deeming them distracting. While the schools have all argued that school codes of conduct are designed independent of race, why is it, then, that only Black children, specifically girls are affected by these “race-neutral” policies? Why is it that styles that Black people have worn for centuries are the same hairstyles that transgress the arbitrary boundaries of professionalism and respectability?

As this discussion illustrates, European cultural imperialism is expressed in policing Black hair and has become part of Black youth’s lived experiences in many parts of the world. Furthermore, parents’ and students’ remarks reveal that the negative stereotypes attached to Blackness via the stigmatization of Black hair continue to oppress by imbuing Black children with a sense of inferiority. One of the dangers of this process lies in the fact that race is not explicitly mentioned. Therefore, policies regulating hairstyles are harder to charge as racist and anti-black.

In response to a visible biracial and growing multiracial, and racially ambiguous groups in the U.S. and Britain, scholars have increasingly addressed the significance attached to skin color, especially for women. Black scholars have maintained that hair texture has long been more important than skin color in racial politics. Differences between whites and Blacks have been much sharper in regards to hair quality than regarding color, and have persisted much longer because of miscegenation. The politics of Black hair is part of a chronic problem linked to the surveillance of Black bodies and the global indignities Black people continue to experience in every aspect of life.

As Joyce A. Ladner argues, the stigmatization of blackness is designed to diminish, disempower, and ultimately bring Black people under submission. Penalties attached to Black hair speak to a social ill rooted in racism. Because beauty and professional standards preclude Black women, Black mothers have had to fortify their daughters to embrace themselves because the messages their children receive from society do not celebrate them. This point is evidenced by the growing number of children’s books written specifically to teach Black girls to love their hair. Tragically, they soon learn that society will punish them for doing so. There is nothing post-racial about Black youth realities, a reality confirmed by one educator of Pretoria Girls High in South Africa: “No wonder you black girls don’t excel academically, you’re always focused on the so-called racial issues of the school.” The young girls of Pretoria Girls High recognized the voice of racism and responded accordingly. “Our hair doesn’t contribute to our academic capabilities,” they responded.  

Anti-black racism presents whiteness as the normal mode of humanness and argues that it is made visible through the stigmatizing of Black hair and styles. The process of stigmatizing and problematizing Black hair construct Black hair as a problem. This process reveals hair texture is intrinsic to racialized social constructions that often emerge from white communities in settler-colonial states. The creation of and reliance on stigmatizing language around Black hair sanction the policing of Blackness via hair, affecting many facets of social and economic life. The construction of ‘the Black hair’ problem is reinforced through “color-blind” mechanisms designed to surveil Blackness, which clearly illustrates that the color-line is operating as it always has.

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Adele N. 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, Anti-Black Racism, and Resistance

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    Thank you for this very interesting article. One observation: you used the word “quality” in this sentence, “Differences between whites and Blacks have been much sharper in regards to hair QUALITY than regarding color…” I find the term, “hair quality” problematic. Hair quality implies that there is a judgement or assessment of hair, i.e. high quality or low quality, good hair and bad hair. Hair doesn’t have a quality. Perhaps you meant “hair texture”?

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