For many Black women, natural hair is a powerful indicator of their personal identity. From ‘fros to locs to braids, Black women frequently utilize hair as a means of self-expression and to connect with their cultural origins. However, despite its historical and social importance, wearing natural hairstyles has prevented many Black women from entering the corporate workforce and advancing in their careers.
“The careers of many Black women have been delayed due to discrimination regarding our hair,” says Minda Harts, CEO of The Memo LLC, a career development company for women of color, and an adjunct professor of public service at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “I recall having a conversation with a Caucasian woman who is a recruiter for corporate board placements. She plainly informed me that she will only promote Black women with straight hair as potential nominees for board positions because she knows her clients will perceive them as more professional.”
In fact, hair discrimination can have such severe consequences that laws have been enacted to combat this form of race-based discrimination in the workplace and education. One such law is The CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” Here’s what you need to know about The CROWN Act and its aim to eradicate natural hair discrimination in the workplace.
What Is The CROWN Act?
The CROWN Act was initially introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2019 and “prohibits discrimination based on a person’s hair texture or hairstyle if that style or texture is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin. Specifically, the bill prohibits this type of discrimination against those participating in federally assisted programs, housing programs, public accommodations, and employment.”
As of 2023, The CROWN Act has been successfully signed into law in nineteen states, including California, New York, Washington, Ohio, Nebraska, Oregon, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Virginia. Alongside The CROWN Act, the Crown Coalition (a national alliance founded by Dove, National Urban League, Color of Change, and Western Center on Law & Poverty) has designated July 3rd as National CROWN Day (also known as Black Hair Independence Day), commemorating the initial signing of the first CROWN Act legislation in California on July 3, 2019.
Why Is The CROWN Act Necessary?
The necessity of a law to prevent hair discrimination may seem absurd, but it is undeniably vital. Research from Duke University in 2020 confirms that bias against natural hairstyles restricts job opportunities for Black women.
In the exploration, participants were requested to function as recruiters and evaluate potential job applicants. Black women with unprocessed hair received inferior ratings on professionalism and competency and were not recommended as frequently for interviews compared with three other categories of candidates (Black women with sleek hair, white women with sleek hair, white women with wavy hair), according to the researchers of the investigation.
In further investigation commissioned by Dove, data indicates that Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair in comparison to their counterparts. Meanwhile, Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as ‘unprofessional’ due to their natural hairstyles.
In Western societies, the typical professional appearance has historically mirrored the physical appearance of white individuals — to such an extent that 80 percent of Black women agree with the statement that “I have to alter my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office,” as indicated by Dove’s CROWN Research Study. Additionally, straight hair — and any hairstyle, for that matter — should be an individual choice, not a requirement for obtaining a job.
— Minda Harts, Chief Executive Officer of The Memo LLC.
“If Black lives matter externally to companies, then those Black lives that work inside of their companies have to matter as well, and that means creating psychological safety so all employees can bring the facets of themselves that they choose to bring to work,”
— — Minda Harts, Chief Executive Officer of The Memo LLC.
During a period in which many corporations have pledged to address systemic racism in the workplace — in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests — it is crucial to address individual biases as well, some of which may not even be conscious (i.e. implicit bias). “What occurs when a Black individual comes in and they possess natural hair?” inquires Gillian Scott-Ward, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of Back to Natural documentary. She argues that hiring managers need to employ grounding skills so they can focus on a person’s resume and not their appearance.
And the work cannot cease once Black women are hired. “If Black lives matter externally to companies, then those Black lives that work inside of their companies have to matter as well, and that means creating psychological safety so all employees can bring the facets of themselves that they choose to bring to work,” states Harts.
Meet 11 Black Women Who’ve Experienced Hair Discrimination
To showcase what these challenges look like in real life and celebrate the beauty, and rich culture, of Black hair, we invited 11 Black women to share what it’s like to navigate their careers with natural hair.
Nyria S.T., West Philadelphia, PA
“In 10th grade, my high school exposed us to year-long internships around the city. We completed applications and interviews; I thought I truly excelled in all of them, but when it was time to review my feedback, the majority of it was about my professional attire.
I was extremely perplexed because I had donned typical corporate attire: jacket, top, lengthy ebony trousers, cozy functional flats, minimal accessories. What could have been the problem? And then I realized: Could it be my hair? Following the hair trends of that period (considering I was in high school, after all), I dyed my hair various shades. However, for the interviews, I chose a dark violet hue — a tone that effortlessly blended with my natural color and passed as black — and styled my hair in Marley twists. I perceived no issue with it; African-American women frequently wear twists and braids, and I had observed medical professionals sporting various braid styles during my doctor’s appointments, so I couldn’t fathom why I received that response. As I was such a people-pleaser in high school, I succumbed and decided to remove my twists, replacing them with a weave for my subsequent interview; to my astonishment, I obtained the internship at a local children’s hospital.
Jodi S., Crown Heights, Brooklyn
“I am currently sporting a substantial chop, which entails completely removing all of my chemically treated hair so that new, natural hair can grow. This act of big chop is considered significant and can sometimes cause women to feel less feminine due to societal beauty standards. As a result, I am slightly concerned about my hair’s perceived short length during the interview process.”
Kianna S., Bronx, NY
“Being employed in Manhattan, more specifically SoHo, it is fascinating to observe people’s reactions to my hair. The majority of my interactions with others regarding my hair have been positive, and the support I receive for embracing my natural hair makes it worthwhile and gratifying. People often compliment me or ask questions about my hair, although some of these inquiries can be unintentionally ignorant or off-putting, such as, ‘How frequently do you wash it?’ ‘What is your haircare routine?’ ‘Is that your real hair?’ When assisting customers face-to-face, some fail to realize that I can perceive their gaze fixated on my hair, examining it closely before me. Some individuals comment on it, while others pretend as if the extended scrutiny of my hair never occurred. It can become somewhat uncomfortable, but I have grown accustomed to it over time.
Initially, styling my hair for interviews posed a challenge because determining the appropriate hairstyle carries more significance for Black women whose hair may not be universally deemed acceptable. Another issue that receives little discussion is the type of natural, curly hair that is considered professional –– coarser hair is often perceived as unruly. I once encountered an individual who asked, ‘Why don’t you apply gel to your hair to enhance the definition of your curls?’ It seems that when you choose to wear your hair naturally, people feel entitled to offer unsolicited advice on how you should manage your hair. However, when I straighten my hair or wear a wig, the comments cease.
The way society is and how we were not raised to embrace innate hair, I have a tendency to have thoughts like, ‘Should I sport my hair sleeked back? Should I wear a hairpiece?’ whenever I have any professional engagements. Even though those musings race through my mind, I still don my unprocessed hair — occasionally I do feel apprehensive and at other times I don’t. I’ve matured to adore it, and it required me a substantial duration to achieve that. If my hair isn’t embraced, I wouldn’t desire to be in that setting anyhow.
Carla K., Los Angeles, CA
“I’m extremely sure in my appearance — grey hair styled in sisterlocks — and who I am — someone who started modelling in her early 50s. So, when my agent informed me about an audition for a commercial, I wore my hair as it is because if you have any knowledge about locs, then you know they’re not something that you alter: You can’t reverse them, you can’t blow dry them, you can’t straighten them. The appearance is the appearance, and when you no longer desire that style, you have to completely cut off your locs. So, I went to the audition and obtained the job — only for my agent to call me again later that day, saying, ‘The client is wondering if you can alter your hair.’ My reply? ‘Um, no.’ I mean they saw me — I went to the audition. They knew precisely what my hair looked like, so why do they want me to alter it and what do they want me to alter it to? ‘Yeah, they kind of want it straight,’ said my agent. And in my mind, I thought, ‘Well if you wanted straight hair then you should’ve been looking at people with straight hair. My hair isn’t straight.’
Of course, I didn’t say that, but I was rather irritated. So, I explained the situation to my agent, who is non-Black, to which I think she said, ‘Do you know someone that has a wig or something?’ I informed her I’d get back to her and hung up. I knew someone who had a wig made of straight, long hair — just what the clients wanted — so I asked if I could borrow it, even though I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this.’ And I really should’ve stuck to my gut, but I didn’t. I got the wig; I put the wig on; I took pictures, and sent it to my agent. She sent it to the client, and they adored it.Fast forward to the shoot and there I was, stuck outside on one of the windiest days of the season, wearing a wig that was blowing everywhere. What’s more, I was the only Black person on set, so I knew that my hair — rather this wind-blown, unnatural-looking wig — was clearly the topic of conversation. Soon, I was told to ditch the wig and go with my own hair but the hairstylist knew nothing about Black hair. It was all just so uncomfortable — so much so that after shooting, I cried in my car, vowing to myself that I would never let someone tell me to do something different to my hair that I know is just not something my hair would do. From now on, I’ll tell people clearly that this is my look, so if this is not the look that they’re looking for then maybe I am not the girl for the job.”
Kimberly G., Bronx, NY
“I’ve always felt strange when wearing my natural hair in predominantly white spaces. Whether it was at an interview or at work, I felt as if all eyes were on me. One summer while working in an office, I was the only Black woman there. I always felt uneasy because I felt like I didn’t belong or fit in. At times when I would be sitting, minding my own business, my colleagues would ask me questions about my hair
They would express statements such as, ‘I admire your hair, what is its length when you smoothen it?’ and ‘Why is it relatively brief?’ I lacked the ability to respond as I desired since doing so would result in me being categorized as furious, hence I simply departed to engage in alternative activities.
Charnice C.,New York, NY
“I previously wore lengthy extensions and would frequently receive compliments on the smooth and seamless appearance of my hair. These compliments often sounded like, ‘Your hair is so exquisite!’ ‘You styled your hair so skillfully.’
I reverted to my natural hair out of convenience. As a dancer, I would sweat out the exposed natural hair in the weave to maintain a more seamless look, and I couldn’t keep up with constantly perming my hair. Once I stopped using chemicals, I felt a sense of relief. I could simply twist or braid my hair without worrying about ruining it. However, when I walked out of my dorm with my natural hair, the nature of the compliments changed: ‘Your hair is so trendy!’ ‘Okay, Angela Davis!’ Suddenly, the comments felt either fetishized or like a form of statement. Even my family would often question me, ‘What are you going to do with your hair?’ when it was already styled. Despite this, I managed to disregard those remarks as I found inspiration in more and more Black women embracing their natural looks.
My journey to dreadlocks began around the time I was applying to medical schools. Although I was nervous about the negative perceptions of dreadlocks in the professional world, I also felt empowered to confront administrators who discriminate against Afro-textured hair. I have utilized my social media platforms to educate individuals with dreadlocks on how to care for and style their hair. My objective is to encourage people to embrace their natural hair and convey the message that Afro-textured hair is not only professional but, more importantly, beautiful. It is cool and it pays tribute to our ancestors.”
Yelitsa J., Detroit, MI
“When I reflect on my relationship with my hair, my mind goes back to my childhood home and the comments from family and friends regarding what constitutes ‘good hair’. It was a mix of my mother struggling to manage my coils and curls into neatly designed patterns of hearts and stars, only for one of my cousins to set them free into a Scary Spice-esque afro.
Middle school was a battleground for a perm, which I was constantly denied. In high school, I subjected my hair to daily straightening in order to conform to my peers’ style. It wasn’t until college that I discovered wearing my natural curls was even a possibility. I put aside the flat iron and opted for coconut oil and shea butter. It was challenging due to the underlying notion that straight, long, flowing hair was more attractive. But I didn’t care. I embraced box braids, Bantu knots, and twist-outs.
After college, I worked for two Black-owned companies, where I never felt that my hair was unprofessional. However, between those two jobs, during interviews, I felt that my appearance made some individuals uncomfortable. Once, I attended an interview with red Havana twists cascading down my back. Throughout the 30-minute interview for a design position, the white female owner emphasized multiple times and inquired if I was comfortable with them conducting a background check. It felt odd, especially considering I had just graduated from college and had a clean record. When I spoke to my peers about it, I realized that oddness was the appropriate word to describe the situation.
Can I state that this occurred due to my hair or my ethnicity being Black? No. Can I state that it caused me tremendous unease? Yes. However, it is irrelevant now as I am in control of my own business; I have the freedom to style my hair as I desire. Moreover, as the creator of Healthy Roots Dolls, I am developing merchandise to inspire other young Black girls to embrace their natural hair as well.
Yanique R., Alexandria, VA
“It is often said that ‘one always remembers their initial experience,’ and I have come to acknowledge the numerous applications of that statement. My friend from Trinidad, who was employed at a prominent communications and marketing agency in New Jersey, encouraged me to apply for their summer internship program. At the time, I was 18 years old and fresh out of my inaugural year of college. Following a successful interview, I was granted acceptance into the program. The agency boasted an esteemed list of clients, and I believed that this experience would greatly enhance my resume.
For close to a decade, I adorned myself with Brandy braids, an arrangement of braids that I would alternate every two to three months. A few weeks into my internship, my friend pulled me aside and relayed that a senior account executive of Caucasian descent deemed my lengthy and abundant braids ‘unsuitable for the corporate environment’ and considered them to lack a sense of ‘professionalism.’ At the urging of the aforementioned senior account executive, my friend inquired whether I would consider altering my hairstyle to something ‘more fitting for a professional atmosphere.’ This request completely caught me off guard since throughout all the years that I had embraced this beloved hairstyle, I had never received a single complaint. While this internship marked my initial venture into the corporate realm, every aspect of my presentation was impeccable. I consistently arrived at the office punctually, donned wrinkle-free suits, and produced content that garnered accolades from our clients. Yet, despite these aforementioned accomplishments, I was urged by the sole other Black woman at the agency to change my hair to something ‘more appropriate for a professional environment.’
Perhaps it was the resilience that accompanies age, but I firmly declined to comply with such a demand. I informed my friend that when I interviewed for the position, albeit with a different account executive, I proudly showcased the same resplendent hair without a hint of objection. I had no intention of modifying my hairstyle and suggested that the senior account executive of Caucasian descent address her concerns with me directly. Although I am uncertain if my friend conveyed the intricacies of my message to the senior account executive, her response appeared to suffice as the subject of my hair was not raised throughout the remainder of my internship.”
Sasha M., Queens, NY
“Despite my inclination to wear my natural afro, I have always opted to slick my hair back or wear a wig for interviews. I even posted a tweet once expressing my personal predicament, and received a similar response from other Black women; they shared that they also style their hair in low buns or puffs or opt for protective hairstyles like braids when interviewing. I feel that if I were to showcase my natural hair, it might give interviewers a reason for discrimination, particularly for roles in the fashion industry.
If I were to offer guidance to young Black professionals, I would advise them to embrace their true selves, especially during interviews. If you desire to flaunt an afro, dreadlocks, or braids, go ahead and do so. Being subjected to discrimination because of your hair is a flaw of the company, not of yourself. You are worthy and exceptional; don’t allow your hair to hold you back.”
Amanda W., Houston, TX
“As an individual who identifies as a Black woman, I am acutely conscious of how I present myself in predominantly Caucasian environments. From an early age, we are conditioned to regulate our behavior, continually monitoring factors such as volume of speech, size of hair, and adherence to ‘appropriate’ attire in professional settings.
For these explanations, whenever confronted with an interview, I sensed I required to display the utmost socially-acceptable rendition of myself, which is interchangeable with adapting to European criteria of attractiveness. The unease that I possess, which originates from the dread of being judged unsuitable for a job solely due to my look, is considerably too elevated. My sustenance, quite accurately, relies on being approved in the workplace, and sensing the need to contort myself to align with those areas is psychologically demanding.
In the previous two to three years, nevertheless, I’ve come to realize that if I am unable to be embraced and accepted as my true and genuine self, then I have no interest in being in that particular setting. I consciously made the decision to style my hair however I desire, to speak in my complete African American Vernacular English brilliance irrespective of the circumstances, and to confront and speak up against the subtle acts of aggression that inevitably accompany being a woman of Black descent in predominantly white environments. In the end, constantly restraining myself has a tremendously negative impact on my overall welfare, and even though it may not be agreeable to certain individuals, it is agreeable to me. Furthermore, I have come to comprehend that regardless of the circumstances, I always end up precisely where I am meant to be.”
Anonymous, Seattle, WA
“I have possessed naturally textured hair throughout the entirety of my life, however, I have not always worn it in the form of natural hairstyles. I possess coily type 4c hair and it was not until my early adulthood that I truly learned how to properly style it.
When I commenced my initial corporate office job, I refrained from wearing my hair in its natural state for approximately one year. When I finally attained a level of comfort, I decided to wear my hair in twists. I reckoned it would be acceptable since in this particular workplace, we were unionized and legally the organization could not dictate how we should dress or present ourselves. Although no one explicitly prohibited me from wearing my hair in its natural state, I did encounter unwarranted remarks whenever I did so. One of my colleagues gestured towards my head, laughed, and remarked, ‘your hair looks interesting.’ I merely responded with a ‘thank you’ without saying anything further, but I would be dishonest if I claimed that it did not wound me emotionally. On another occasion, one of the few other Black individuals working alongside me commented, ‘It seems like you have been here for so long that you no longer care about your appearance, styling your hair without any consideration.’ That remark essentially marked the culmination of my tolerance.
I have recently embarked on a new job. I specifically sought out a company that embraced a ‘casual’ dress code. Given that Black hair is frequently regarded as unprofessional, I surmised that this was the optimal opportunity for me to freely wear my hair in its natural state without facing malicious comments about it. The company I currently work for claims to support ‘self-expression’ and similar ideals, but that does not necessarily translate into tangible actions. While receiving comments about my hair can be tolerated, losing my job over it is fundamentally unacceptable. I am uncertain about what actions I will take in the future, but for the past few weeks, I have been styling my hair in tightly pulled-back buns. I am the sole Black individual in my office, and I have yet to feel completely at ease in expressing myself authentically.