White America has historically weaponized Black hair since the arrival of the first slaves, and a recent article in the Washington Post reveals that the battle for the freedom of Black women to wear their natural hair or “African-inspired” styles to work, school, or even a job interview is far from over.
It’s been nearly a decade since I stopped wearing wigs and weaves and cut off my relaxed hair on television while I was a reporter at WPTV News Channel Five in West Palm Beach, Florida, going from a long black wig to a mini-Afro. My decision to wear my hair in its natural state — meaning without heat or chemical hair straighteners — was part of a story that I shot, edited and wrote.
The story highlights the hair challenges Black women face in corporate America and its negative impact on their health. My personal decision to “go natural” meant to empower Black women who would one day fill my shoes and to rebel against the White standard of beauty and professionalism in television news.
That story aired in 2010, and since then other Black women continue to unapologetically wear their natural mane. Still, several times a year we hear of school systems, athletic competitions and corporate offices equating the skills of Black people to how they wear their hair.
It appears the American workforce has yet to learn that whether a Black woman’s hair is braided, twisted, blown-out or in "locs," they are the most educated group in the United States, earning 71% of master’s degrees and 65% of the doctorate degrees earned by Black students. And, the texture and styling of their hair have yet to get in the way of them breaking those barriers. Sadly, I now realize that being able to wear your natural hair is dependent upon the level of partiality in your individual environment.
When a Black woman's hair — and in other cases a Black man's hair — is used as a tool to disqualify her for a job, despite her obvious qualifications, we have to ask ourselves why are some White people so offended by what naturally grows from the scalp of an African-American? The answer can be found in the DNA of America's racist history where successful efforts to police Black hair and criminalize Black skin have aided in fostering bias perceptions of Black people.
In the late 1700s, Tignon Laws forced Black women to wear scarves or wraps over their hair in order to identify them as slaves or descendants of slaves in an effort to make them less desirable to White men. The elaborate hairstyles decorated in colorful beads and shells were, even during those times, a threat to the status quo.
Fast forward to the 1950s, '60s and '70s —the genesis of the Black Panther Party and the civil rights movement — Black people began wearing Afros — and again people became threatened by the Afro, perceiving it as a sign of Black political activism and a threat to White privilege.
The image of former first lady Michelle Obama with an Afro and a military-style weapon that graced a 2008 cover of the New Yorker is a perfect example of the weaponization of Black hair. The ignorance surrounding Black hairstyles and texture is so triggering that now our hair, like our skin, has to be protected by the law. New York and California have already signed such legislation against hair discrimination. New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan and others will soon do the same. "The Crown Act" makes it illegal for employers to enforce policies surrounding "race neutral" grooming or to discriminate against people wearing natural or protective styles — like braids, dreadlocks and twists — in the workplace or housing.
Luckily, my kinky curls have not deterred an employer from hiring me or resulted in accusations of criminal intent. Regardless, it angers me that too many Black women, and girls, have not been afforded the same experience. The way hair sprouts from the root should not be the determining factor in a person’s physical, academic or professional abilities. It's past time employers stop looking at the hair that grows from a Black woman's head and focus on her resume.
Rochelle Ritchie is a former television reporter and Congressional press secretary. She is a political commentator regularly featured on FOX News, MSNBC and CNN.
(Photo: Courtesy of Rochelle Ritchie)
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