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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

New Study on Black Hair Discrimination Proves What We've Been Trying to Make Clear for Decades

Black girls are still being discriminated against for their natural hair in schools.

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Khloe Jules is a mixed race Black girl who lives in France, and she has a gorgeously coiled afro. She was just 4 years old when she came home from school crying after the white kids bullied her and called her curly 4c textured hair “ugly.” Naturally, Khloe was ashamed to return to school.

This was so disturbing for Khloe’s Caribbean/St. Barths family that her older sister, St. Clair Detrick Jules, who lives in DC, interviewed hundreds of women and asked them to share similar experiences in personal heartfelt letters to Khloe. St. Clair compiled their gripping stories over the course of two years and published them in an award-winning book, called My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Hair Stories From the Sisterhood. Women from all over the U.S. and abroad joined in with shared feelings of frustration and the need for liberation from eurocentric ideals of beauty. This experience is an everyday occurrence for Black women and girls, and for Detrick-Jules, the mission for natural hair appreciation was decades in the making. “I wanted to her to stop seeing her through the eyes of the racist white kids, and see herself through the eyes of her community,” the author told me.

Just a year earlier, in 2016, Solange released the iconic video for her song, “Don’t Touch my Hair,” wherein the songstress is seen in an array of hairstyles from braids to a curls to an afro to a looped braided crown and says, “Don’t touch my hair/When it’s the feelings I wear/Don’t touch my soul/When it’s the rhythm I know/ Don’t touch my crown/They say the vision I’ve found.”

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That pivotal moment finally gave Black women, who’ve lived through decades of hair discrimination, the language to speak about our hair, as well as the empowerment to demand that white people not touch it. The nonconsensual touching of our hair is a form of micro-aggression and fetishization that has become such a common experience for women of color, in which navigating white spaces becomes a minefield.

It seems as though every generation needs another Solange anthem— something to give them authority to reject white people’s assumed entitlement to our hair. It seems that every day, our peers, authority figures, media, and the entertainment industry find new ways to tell young Black girls that not only is Black hair unattractive, but others are entitled to take and destroy it. Detrick-Jules writes in her book,

I had the thickest mane and the most tender scalp—getting my hair done was a chore for everyone involved. Then one day, I grew up, and my relationship with my hair changed. I hated it. It wasn’t loose enough, or long enough, or straight enough, or anything else enough. I asked for my first relaxer at age ten, and that became my ritual. Every eight weeks, my mom would touch up my new growth. My scalp would burn and itch as she smoothed the creamy, smelly chemicals through my hair until it was time to rinse. I ruined my hair in-between with heat, bad hair cuts, weaves, too tight braids, and sun-in (with hopes of having blonde highlights that never showed up). It took me years to realize that I was enough, and so was my hair.

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This past month, Arizona State University conducted a study in which they interviewed 105 Black girls ages 10-15 and found that the majority of them experienced verbal teasing or bullying because of their hair, starting in preschool or kindergarten. A full 78 percent of 10-year-olds, 50 percent of 11-year-olds, 81 percent of 12-year-olds, 65 percent of 13-year-olds, and 70 percent of 14-year-olds all reported being violated in that way. These results are not surprising: How many ways do we have to say the same thing year after year until someone listens?

“We all need to do a better job celebrating natural hair–in the media, in school settings, and in the beauty industry, which financially benefits from girls and women thinking they need to alter their hair,” said Marisol Perez, Associate Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and senior author of the study. But we’ve been screaming this as a culture for far too long, and I start to wonder whom exactly we are trying to convince.

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The study was motivated by recent examples of Black youth being suspended from school, threatened with punishment or not permitted to participate in extracurricular activities because of their hair. The Crown Act, which was the first legislation in this country’s history to make it illegal for schools and employers to discriminate against Black people’s natural hair and hairstyles, passed in California in 2019 and was signed into law in 2020. The legislation noted that 53% of Black girls experience discrimination as early as 5 years old.

“I was in third grade when I learned that flat irons existed. Sitting in my friend’s basement apartment in Washington, DC, I watched as her mom ran the hot, clamp-like jaws through my friend’s wavy hair. The steam escaped out the sides as her waves disappeared, becoming pin straight. That night, I asked my mom, “Why didn’t you ever tell me I could straighten my hair?” And at the time, I didn’t understand her answer, which was something about “Blackness” and being proud,” Detrick-Jules says in her book.

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Detrick-Jules looks back on this pastime of her nana brushing and combing her hair fondly, and connects it to rediscovering the beauty of her natural hair. Far too often, the styles our mothers create for us in our homes as Black girls are not considered acceptable in school, at work, and on sports teams. Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home or know of someone sent home from the workplace because of her hair. We also know, however, that hair discrimination over the decades hasn’t stopped with work—it has permeated the school system, and sports as well. We’ve seen national cases from 2108-2021, as Chasity Jones, DeAndre Arnold, Asia Simo, and even gymnastic legend Simone Biles were forced to cut or change their natural hair in order to participate in school or sports function, and incidents continued with Ashanti Scott in Kentucky and others.

According to Neuroscience News, the 105 girls who participated in the ASU study answered questions about the type of comments their natural hair elicited at school, and how media’s portrayals of celebrities with chemically altered hair has affected their perception of themselves. Their response: “good hair” was long, wavy, straight, and loose. In other words, acceptable hair was as close to Eurocentric ideals of beauty as possible—a dangerous conditioning that starts before our first day at school.

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As St. Clair and I talked, we both responded to the statistic with a resounding “duh” moment. “The fear is that those feelings will be internalized,” St. Clair told me. “My sister and I were walking past a poster of a Black woman with tight coily hair similar to hers, and she called her ‘ugly.’” She goes on to say, “Overtime Khoe has learned to see these women that reflect her as beautiful. But the bullying continues.”

This is the root of the Black girls’ internalized and warped sense of beauty in America and abroad: As children, we are made to crave the “creamy crack,” or a perm to straighten our natural curls to look more like the non-Black women in magazines, movies, and music videos. We wrap towels around our head and let them hang to imagine what it would be like to have hair down our back. We are conditioned since birth to covet white hair and internalize the teasing at school, by peers, family, strangers, everyone.

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Like St. Clair, I remember regretting getting a perm. My hair texture was never the same after mine, so I was stuck afterwards in a continual loop of wearing long Beyoncé micro braids or weave to make my hair grow back. I have so many memories of ignorant comments from the white kids in my school: “Is that your real hair?” “Why is it so short one day and long the other?” “Did you comb your hair today?”

The other girls in my class with tighter hair textures were called “nappy,” like it was a racial slur. “Employees in school settings play an important role in how Black girls perceive their hair,” said Perez. “The girls were impacted both by negative comments and by the absence of positive statements.”

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While the passing of the Crown Act would be a huge step, St. Clair and I both agreed that much more needs to happen, i.e. transformative school education and awareness on anti-Blackness and cultural sensitivity, sports policy reform, more representation of natural hair in media and entertainment, and training and awareness of natural hair at beauty shops, stores, and in homes.

My takeaway from the expansive work that St. Clair has done on Black natural hair empowerment is that nothing will change until we do—until society starts to respect Black hair and keep their damn hands out of it. Until we normalize our hair in professional, entertainment, and school settings and break the stigma, the change we deserve will contine to move at a snails pace. Our natural hair is an untouchable connection to our ancestry, spirituality, and joy, even in a world that is determined to convince us of the contrary.