During this time of COVID several of my good-good girlfriends and I have taken the time to come together for what we call our quarterly “girlfriends and giggles” night. During our latest gathering of our libations and our individual liberation, our conversation freely evolved to one thing that unifies all Black women… our hair. As we went back-and-forth debating over our 4C versus 3B textures, and if it took little effort versus great effort to “manipulate” our curl pattern, and how long we could keep a press out versus why some decided to cut their hair off altogether; one thing we all landed on was that our crowns, no matter their style, texture, length or pattern, were beautiful.
Coincidentally, following that rendezvous of girlfriends and giggles, I was invited by the ultra visionary, Melani Douglass, the Director of Public Programs for the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC to partake in a private viewing of the highly acclaimed artist, Sonya Clark’s goosebump worthy and thought provoking exhibit – Tatter, Bristle, and Mend. As I maneuvered throughout the gallery taking in Clark’s original pieces, it was evident that there is no debating the intersectionality of Black women, societal standards on beauty and labor, and the direct relationship between our economy and political positions.
I left that exhibit with both a sense of pride, coupled with frustration; pride as I was reminded of the trailblazing efforts of Madame C.J. Walker and her unprecedented achievements and frustrated by the fact that in 2021, we are still seeing overt discriminatory acts against Black women and their hair which furthers the false narratives of acceptability and beauty and negates the strong economic impact that Black hair has on our global economy.
Over the last decade, the natural hair movement for Black women in the workplace has become a powerful force within the beauty industry. With more and more Black women embracing their natural textures, many are still left having to fight against racist attitudes and connotations linked to their natural hairstyles.
It’s no secret that most beauty products do not cater to women of color and their needs. At the end of the 19th century, Madam C.J. Walker invented a hair-straightening comb that was used to “tame” black hair. As a result, she became the first self-made female millionaire (period). In an era where Black women were mocked for their hair, Madam C.J. Walker provided a tool that allowed these same women to suppress their natural traits, just to attempt acceptance and we still see this playing out today.
Today, Nielsen reported that the Black hair care industry is at an estimated $2.51 billion, and 86% of the ethnic beauty market was captured by Black beauty small business owners, amounting for $63.5 million. Just as important, careers in this industry, while they may require certifications or specific training and licenses, don’t necessarily require degrees, which can be a barrier to economic mobility. This industry employees countless women and has a multiplier effect in that it further supports financial freedom and economic mobility for a large pool of Asian immigrants who open beauty supply stores in urban markets across the country. According to On My Own: Korean Businesses and Race Relations in America by In-Jin Yoon, there are 9,000 Korean owned Black hair beauty stores in the United States compared to the 300 Black owned. However, despite the incline of resources and accessibility that we are seeing with beauty products and stores that are geared towards the needs of Black women’s hair, the bias that they face because of their hair in the workplace is at an all time high.
Cases filed by Black women proclaiming discrimination against their natural hair in the workplace have been prominent for more than 40 years. In 2016, The Good Hair Project, conducted by the Perception Institute, surveyed over 4,000 people and found that the majority of participants, regardless of their race and gender, held bias towards Black women based on their hairstyles and textures. With changing social and cultural norms in the United States, this has created a disputable and unsettling legal environment with verdicts on both sides of the debate.
Thankfully, in 2019 the CROWN Act was first passed in the state of California and New York. According to The Crown Act, the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act prohibits race-based hair discrimination; the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots. Today, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Washington, Maryland, Nebraska, Connecticut and Delaware have taken steps to push employers to dismantle discriminatory practices towards Black women and their hair. However, the Crown Act legislation is still missing in over 40 different states across the United States.
For this week’s Freedom Friday, Walker’s Legacy believes the natural state of all women’s hair should be encouraged and embraced, not discouraged and discriminated against. We don’t judge you for how you want to wear your hair, but we do judge those who imply that all hair types are not equal. We are not our hair, but our hair is us….diverse, beautiful and worthy of praise.
Want to be inspired? Be sure to check out Sonya Clark’s exhibit at The National Museum of Women in the Arts until June 27.
Want to be an advocate, visit The Crown Act to see how your can advance legislation in your state