Home Beauty The Beauty Shop: There’s Still Bias Against Natural Hair

The Beauty Shop: There’s Still Bias Against Natural Hair

by Erika Nicole Kendall

From NPR:

The Good Hair Study asked over 4,000 participants to take an online IAT, or implicit association test, which involves rapidly-changing photos of black women with smooth and natural hair, and rotating word associations with both. According to the study, “a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of color based on their hair.” But the results also indicate that this bias is learned behavior, and can be unlearned.

In the study, millennials of all races came across as more accepting of textured hair. And “naturalistas,” women who choose to wear their hair natural, “showed either no bias or a slight preference for textured hair.”

Some key findings confirm that black women suffer more anxiety around hair issues, and spend more on hair care than their white peers. They are almost twice as likely to experience social pressure at work to straighten their hair compared to white women.

The study also concludes that, “White women demonstrate the strongest bias — both explicit and implicit — against textured hair.” They rated it as “less beautiful,” “less sexy/attractive” and “less professional than smooth hair.” However, white women who are in contact with black women naturalistas demonstrated lower levels of bias. Given that white women make up a large majority of the 38 percent of female managers who decide what looks are appropriate for work, legal conflicts sometimes ensue. And courts tend to rule in favor of employers in such cases. [source]

In reading this, I had a few thoughts.

First, duh. In fact, I said much of this a while back when I asked readers their thoughts on how having natural hair affected their dating and career prospects. Many folks paid me dust—literally, on some “No, Erika, I just don’t like nappy hair” kind of thing—and I let it go, but not because I was proven wrong. If anything, I knew I was right because…

Second, this little quote in the paragraphs above says a lot:

According to the study, “a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of color based on their hair.” But the results also indicate that this bias is learned behavior, and can be unlearned.

The truth is, all biases are learned—both from low inference data (things we assume from what we see, without discussing it or asking questions about it) and from explicit instruction (for example, “you don’t want to be seen hanging out with those people because they [insert derogatory claim])—and, with effort, can be unlearned. The key to the unlearning is the willingness of the biased person to change.

The problem with that, however, is that most people don’t really give a damn about things that negatively impact black people, specifically black women.

Third, I’d like to point out the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation we put black women in. We demean black women for investing money in their appearance, and then we deride them for looking “unkempt” when they don’t look like they’ve invested any money in their appearance. We demean black women for investing money in adhering to the European “straight hair” standard, but black women are literally impacting their economic advancement when they try to buck the standard.

Another thing I’d like to point out, is how white women are seen as the ones who demonstrate the strongest bias against black hair. I’m not surprised by that, either—if the standard is built on a characteristic that you have naturally and with little effort, why wouldn’t you adhere to it and demand others do the same? At that point, opposition to the standard—which, let’s face it, natural black hair is—means creating a new standard that would leave them out. They’re not going to want that. (Unless, of course, they realize the futility of this nonsense and decide it is irrelevant either way. Cheers to those who are smart enough to see the game for what it is.)

That leads me to my next point. I’ve been reading commentary on this NPR article for a few days now, and I realize that many people are missing the point.

All this talk about beauty standards and hair is really about assimilation. How willing are you to give up everything that makes you who you are—your culture, your personal style, your hair texture—to pretend that you’re not in allegiance to “the scary other?” How willing are you to uphold the standards of the assimilated majority, even if it takes devaluing and demeaning that which is a part of you? To what lengths are you willing to go to align yourself with the majority?

And, just like that, your hair becomes a political matter. Sigh.

This is why stories about people wearing locs or braids being told to take them down in order to comply with a dress code are important. Who creates a dress code that doesn’t take into account the fact that the standards for “neat” and “well-kept” natural black hair are different for non-black hair? People who are only interested in upholding the assimilationist standard. Black men are expected to cut their hair so low that their coils are virtually unidentifiable; black women are expected to straighten. When they don’t, they are penalized—denied promotion or even demoted, denied privileges, shunned, made to feel uncomfortable in professional spaces, treated like a petting zoo animal, and so on. The more willing you are to conform, the more likely you are to be praised and rewarded for it—and, from the looks of this research regarding the biases white women carry about black hair, you’re also likely to suffer a penalty for not conforming. It can quickly feel like it’s just easier to straighten your hair and collect that paycheck.

When adherence to this standard is expected from us, it also impacts the way we see each other. It’s part of why we sometimes see women who straighten their hair making negative statements about women who don’t; it’s part of why we hear black men say nasty things about “nappy hair” being unattractive. These people ultimately raise children who see their own hair this way, and ultimately judge their peers based on this standard.

All of this, just to make sure we aren’t devalued. All of this, just to make sure we can get paid.

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