It was never ‘just hair’

Turns out a gas pump can cause a long-awaited identity crisis.

A lot of Black women have the same hair backstory that dates back for generations. Many of us grew up with the kitchen acting as two different spaces. It all depends on the context, but with hair — it was a part-time salon. Every two weeks, My grandma would straighten my hair with an iron comb that you warm with an eye on a stove, and you’d walk away from this with straight hair, a few burns and a sore scalp. This progressed to getting perms every two months for 10 years of my life and left me with damaged hair and chemical burns on my scalp. 

This led to my natural hair journey of the past two years. After wearing protective styles like braids, my hair was finally healthy and the perm was completely grown out. I was still getting my hair pressed, so I wasn’t completely natural with wearing my curls. 

COVID-19 shut down salons, and the woman who was braiding my hair began charging $600. Those were the perfect incentives to learn how to do my hair. So I washed and styled my hair, and because of my incompetence with styling and taking care of my natural hair, this was the first time I did this.

My hair turned out amazing and my curls looked beautiful. I was happy to finally embrace a side of myself that I had been afraid to show for years, because of Eurocentric beauty standards and how they’ve been forced onto the Black community for centuries. 

I never in a million years would’ve guessed that the liberating freedom and confidence my hair gave me would be stripped away, all because of a stare that lasted a little too long at a Costco gas pump.

I got into my car and started rambling off to my grandma off about whether I should just make a hair appointment to get my hair straightened. For the next week, I sat uncomfortable in Zoom meetings for both class and work wondering if people were staring at my hair the way the woman did at that gas pump, or if they were paying attention to class. At work, I wondered if they thought that my hair was “unprofessional” for the work environment and would fire me. 

All of these thoughts because I made the decision to wear the hair that has been growing out of my head since birth. But in the Black community, hair is more than just hair, it’s a part of our identity.

JSTOR Daily mentioned that enslaved women covered their hair with rags, because the harsh weather was taxing on their hair. If you worked in the house instead of the fields, they would often have to wear a wig that mimicked the hair of their enslaver. In New Orleans, Creole women wore their kinks in various styles, so the city implemented the Tigon Laws and this required them to wear a scarf over their hair to signify that they were a part of the slave class, regardless if they were enslaved or not. The 1920s brought the invention of the hot comb that promoted straight hair courtesy of Madam C. J. Walker, which signified middle class status making it easier for Black women to find jobs. 

The ’60s sparked the “Black is Beautiful” movement, reassuring Black men and women that their facial features, skin and natural hair were beautiful as is. Activist Marcus Garvey argued that copying white Eurocentric beauty standards belittled the beauty of Black women, because they weren’t embracing their natural hair.

Shortly after, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, which made workplace discrimination illegal. But, workplace discrimination under the act didn’t include hair. 

In 2010, Chasity Jones was offered a job from a company that she interviewed with, but was told that she would have to cut off her locs if she wanted the job. The hiring manager said, “They tend to get messy.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a suit on Jones’ behalf in 2013 and lost.

It was then taken to the 11th circuit appeals court and the case got dismissed. According to Essence Magazine, the appeals court dismissed the case because of calls for the reinterpretation of race in Title VII, The call is for interpreting race more broadly, so that cultural characteristics of race can be acknowledged, too. The court didn’t want to be the first court to take this path.

Without this link between race and cultural characteristics, it gives companies like the one Jones had hoped to work for the opportunity to discriminate against ethnic hairstyles. This is one of many cases that involved discrimination due to natural hair, because the courts have been weary of the reinterpretation of race The CROWN Act was created.

The CROWN Act of 2019 fought discrimination against race-based hairstyles. The law has been adopted by California, and Michigan has filed but hasn’t adopted the bill yet. The MiCROWN is a petition to help get the bill passed because it’s still sitting in the House, and needs to be moved to the Senate.

According to a Dove CROWN research study, 80% of Black women feel as though they have to alter the state of their hair to fit in at work.

It’s not just hair when there’s history and laws being placed to protect me from being discriminated against.

No, I didn’t make that hair appointment. I kept the curly puff on top of my head because I liked my hair and if someone has a problem with my hair, there’s a lot of self-reflection that needs to be done. I understand that it’s a process and that it’s going to take a level of confidence for looks to not bother me anymore, but I’m diving headfirst into this with the help of my friends and family who have been on this journey for years.