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Don’t touch my hair!: A guide to investigating race-based hair discrimination

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Growing up as a young Black girl in a predominately White town, I always wore what we call in the Black communities a “protective hair style.” Specifically, I grew up wearing the single braid hairstyle to protect my hair from breakage caused by Old Man Winter.

I recall a particular instance when I was 12 years old, walking to my afterschool pick-up spot where my parents would pick me up. As I was walking, I heard one of my classmates call out my name several times. I think deep down inside I was avoiding this fellow, as I wanted to walk in peace and quiet.  As he continued to shout out my name, I finally stopped to see what he wanted. My classmate ran up to me, and, out of breath, he said, “Here.” When I looked down at my classmate’s hand, he had picked up one of my single braids that had fallen out right in the middle of the sidewalk. Horrified, I slowly grabbed the lonely single braid from his hand, and said, “Thanks,” in a confused but mortified state. Still staring at the single braid in my hand, I thought to myself, “Please God, I hope he doesn’t start asking me questions about my hair.”

This wouldn’t have been the first time that a classmate had asked me questions about my hair, but 12-year-old me was tired of having to explain my hair to classmates, friend’s parents, and random strangers. The 12-year-old me was also tired of random strangers touching my hair like I was a zoo animal, and having to answer their many questions — especially the typical question, “Is that your real hair?” Or, when I explained to them that my braids were hair extensions, “How long is your real hair?” How I wished I could have played Solange Knowles’ song, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” in those moments. Most importantly, I wish I could have encouraged my elementary school teachers to read books by Sharee Miller. These books, entitled, Don’t Touch My Hair! and Princess Hair, put a spotlight on the beauty and diversity of Black hair while discussing the importance of asking for permission from young Black girls to touch their hair. Unfortunately, this incident occurred in the early 2000s when Beyonce was not yet an icon, and there were still four members of Destiny’s Child.

The answer is yes, my classmate did end up asking me questions about my hair. I half ignored him, half mumbled a response to his questions. For some reading this blog, you’re probably wondering what the problem was. Additionally, you’re probably thinking this young classmate of mine was probably curious and wanted to learn more about my hair, with which I agree. However, it was the feeling of being “othered” that made my experience uncomfortable.

Fast forward to today and I have less encounters about my hair like the one I had with my classmate, but I have seen an uptick of complaints made by Black complainants about microaggressive comments and behaviours relating to their hair. In my experience, some workplace investigators have no idea why they are even investigating these types of complaints. So, why is Black hair such a sensitive topic? And why do we investigate these types of complaints? Yes, unwanted negative comments and behaviours about Black hair may be a form of microaggression, since they result in “othering.” However, it’s not enough to just say that this type of behaviour is a microaggression. The question that one must consider is, “Why is it a microaggression?”

In this blog, I aim to provide a contextual understanding of the issues surrounding Black hair in the workplace in order to assist other workplace investigators with investigating this type of complaint.

Significance of Black Hair

To understand the significance of investigating race-based hair discrimination towards Black hair, one must understand the history of Black hair.

For some, Black hair is an expression of identity and culture. It’s a representation of history and carries deep emotional significance, since Black hair is a symbol of survival, resistance, and celebration.1 It’s been used as a tool of oppression and one of empowerment. Historically, for some, Black hair has carried a profound symbolism. Different types of hairstyles like cornrows, dreadlocks, twists, afros, bantu knots, and more all have historic connections to Black pride, culture, religion, and history.2 For example, in Ancient African communities, hair was more than just style. Throughout the continent, a person’s hairstyle could tell you a lot about who they were and where they came from. Braids and other intricate hairstyles were historically worn to signify tribal identification, marital status, age, religion, wealth, and rank in society.3 During the enslavement of Blacks, braids (particularly cornrows) were used as a tool for the enslaved to escape, as cornrows were used as a map to plan out escape routes. Fast forward to the “Black power movement,” when the natural afro became a popular statement of power, pride, resistance, and a way to reclaim their roots.4 We see this as iconic Black activists, scholars, and artists like Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, and Nina Simone rocked hairstyles that symbolized the enduring fight against racism.5

Historical Discriminatory Laws Against Black Hair

During the 1700s, in the state of Louisiana, an established community of free Black women were known to style their hair elaborately, drawing the attention of White men. Many non-Black individuals saw this type of styling as a threat to the status quo.6 Thus, in 1786, the governor of Louisiana passed the “Tignon Laws,” under which Black women were forced to conceal their hair with a tignon (a head scarf typically worn by enslaved women while labouring).7 The law’s purpose was twofold: it was an additional visual social marker, asserting that free Black women were closer to enslaved women than to White women; and it supposedly prevented Black women from enticing White men.8 Black women, however, seized this opportunity to create a new cultural movement by crafting colourful and ornate headwraps. While the Tignon Laws were no longer being enforced by early 1800s, race-based hair discrimination persisted.

In the 19th century, some Black people viewed altering the texture of their hair as essential to social and economic success and reducing tension with White people. Hair straightening, or using chemicals on one’s hair (i.e., relaxer), has continued to be seen as a way to assimilate and make those unfamiliar with Black hair more comfortable. However, this is slowly changing, as some Black individuals are wearing a more natural hair style.

Today, many Black individuals, particularly Black women and children, continue to be denied access to education and employment opportunities due to their hair. The Perception Institute’s 2016 “Good Hair” study suggests that “a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias toward Black women and their hair.”9 A 2020 study by Duke University also found that Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived as less professional, less competent, and were less likely to be recommended for job interviews than candidates with straight hair (who were viewed as more polished, refined, and respectable).10 Additionally, schools and workplaces across the country are still enforcing prejudiced policies against Black hair. For example, there have been many incidents where Black students have been criticized or suspended for the way they style their hair. Additionally, studies have shown that Black women are more likely to be sent home or fired because of their hair. 11

Case Law

While the United States has made attempts to eliminate race-based hair discrimination, with 13 states signing the anti-hair discrimination CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), Canada is still behind. Unfortunately, Canadian statutory law does not explicitly protect against race-based hair discrimination. However, this issue is still very much prevalent in Canada.

For example, in 2016, a woman who worked at a restaurant was sent home because she wore her natural hair in a bun hair style. She alleged that she was sent home because her manager required female staff to wear their hair down, even though she had explained that her natural hair does not fall straight.12 In the same year, another woman who worked at a retail store quit her job after she was told her “box braid” hairstyle did not the fit the retail brand’s clean professional look.”13 In 2019, a woman quit her job after being told by her employees that her natural hair would “scare away customers.”14 In 2015, a grade 8 student was allegedly sent home because her natural hair style was deemed “too poofy and unprofessional.”15

Race-based hair discrimination has also been addressed by human rights bodies in Canada. In the 2010 Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (“the Tribunal”) case, Armstrong v. Anna’s Hair & Spa, 2010 HRTO 1751 (CanLII), a hair salon refused to provide scalp massage and hair washing services to a Black man who wore a dreadlock hair style. In this case, the Tribunal found that the denial to provide hair services to the complainant was “indisputably” discriminatory and ordered the salon to pay compensation of $1,000 to the complainant.

In a 2014 Quebec Human Rights Commission (“the Commission”) case, a complainant working at a restaurant was asked to leave her place of work because she was wearing her hair in cornrows. According to the complainant, her employers told her that they did not want that type of hairstyle in their establishment. Eventually, the complainant’s hours were cut, and she was ultimately fired. The Commission held that the complainant was the victim of racial and gender discrimination, and ordered the restaurant’s owner to pay $14,500 in damages.16

What Workplace Investigators Need to Understand

Now that I’ve dropped a bit of knowledge, here are some helpful takeaways for workplace investigators to keep in mind about race-based hair discrimination. These takeaways can help to explain why a complainant might include comments about hair in their complaint, even though a workplace investigator might perceive these comments as benign.

Firstly, it is important to understand that historically and currently, society has deemed Black hair as deviant compared to the stereotypical “Eurocentric” hairstyles. Under the guise of “othering,” unwanted negative comments and behaviours relating to Black hair can lead to the “them vs. us” mentality.

Secondly, for some Black individuals, there is a subtle pressure or feeling that they have to conform to this Eurocentric manner by changing their hairstyle, especially in the workplace.

Thirdly, when a complainant changes their hairstyle and constantly receives questions or comments, it can make that individual feel othered. Here are some examples of how this type of othering manifests:

    1. When someone asks a Black person:
      • “Is that your real hair?”
      • “How long is your real hair?”
      • “Do you wear hair extensions?” or “Are those hair extensions?”
    1. Using the term “nappy” or “kinky” to refer to a Black person’s hair
    2. When someone asks to touch a Black person’s hair
    3. When someone deems a Black person’s hairstyle (i.e., natural hair, dreadlocks, braids, cornrows etc.) unprofessional, messy, or unkempt

While these are a few examples of the subtle forms of race-based hair discrimination, it is not an exhaustive list. In these types of cases, it is important as workplace investigators to carefully listen to the complainant and their experience, and to identify the impact of such comments, remembering that impact trumps intent. Most importantly, when looking at the facts, don’t forget to nudge yourself to consider the historical and societal contexts in order to have a proper understanding of the broader issue at hand.

1 Nikki Fox, “6 Things Everyone Should Know About Black Hair History,” Odele (February 22, 2021) online: https://odelebeauty.com/blogs/the-rinse/black-hair-history-facts.

2 Legal Defense Fund, “Natural Hair Discrimination,” Legal Defense Fund online: https://www.naacpldf.org/natural-hair-discrimination/.

3 Note 1, above.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Annaëlle Barreau, “Afro-Hair and the Law: The State of American and Canadian Law on Race-Based Hair Discrimination,” McGill Journal of Law and Health (September 8, 2022) online: https://mjlh.mcgill.ca/2022/09/08/afro-hair-and-the-law-the-state-of-american-and-canadian-law-on-race-based-hair-discrimination/.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Perception Institute, HAIR IAT study, online: https://perception.org/goodhair/hairiat/.

10 Duke University, “Research Suggests Bias Against Natural Hair Limits Job Opportunities for Black Women,” Duke University (August 12, 2022) online: https://www.fuqua.duke.edu/duke-fuqua-insights/ashleigh-rosette-research-suggests-bias-against-natural-hair-limits-job.

11 Legal Defense Fund, “Natural Hair Discrimination,” Legal Defense Fund online: https://www.naacpldf.org/natural-hair-discrimination/.

12 Agyemfra v. SIR Corp, 2018 HRTO 1118 (CanLII).

13 CBC News, “Cree Ballah says she quit her job because Zara told her to remove her box braids,” CBC News (April 13, 2016) online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/zara-hair-complaint-1.3534664.

14Angelyn Francis, “A Black AGO worker was told her hair could ‘scare’ customers. The gallery agreed that was discrimination and promised to do better. A year later, she’s still fighting for justice,” Toronto Star (July 30, 2020) online: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/07/30/a-black-ago-worker-was-told-her-hair-could-scare-customers-the-gallery-agreed-that-was-discrimination-and-promised-to-do-better-a-year-later-shes-still-fighting-for-justice.html.

15 Verity Stevenson and Louise Brown, “Demonstrators declare: black hair is beautiful,” Toronto Star (December 4, 2015) online: https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2015/12/04/demonstrators-declare-black-hair-is-beautiful.html

16 Global News, “Montreal discrimination case over woman’s hairstyle will proceed to Human Rights Tribunal,” (March 19, 2019)
online: https://globalnews.ca/news/5072688/montreal-racial-discrimination-madisons-human-rights-tribunal/

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