By Nichelle Robinson Hernandez, The Undivided For Howard University News Service
The deaths and discrimination of Black people, minorities and other oppressed communities have continued in the U.S. this year. A growth in white nationalism under the Trump Administration shed light on the racist undertones in America. The Black Lives Matter movement and protests in favor of all Black women promoted awareness and responded to racially motivated violence in the United States. The expression of a Black person and their hair are under fire as well. Textures of Black, natural hair are perceived as unprofessional. Today, the U.S. Congress is having the necessary discussions to mend the broken and biased expectations of Black hair in academic and corporate spaces.
The racial subjugation of Black people is rooted in capitalism and eurocentric ideals according to many scholars. Black exploitation began in the era of 1619, as shipments of enslaved Africans landed in Jamestown, Virginia. Black bodies were taken, ticketed and used as a means of labor and economic sustainability. Black features, particularly hair and skin color, were juxtaposed with white beauty standards. Misrepresentations of Black people stem from the hatefulness of slavery. Conversations about combating ignorance and reclaiming the beauty in all shades of blackness are occurring in the United States and within the diaspora of African-Americans.
Three quarters of Black adults say that their race plays a large role in how they think of themselves. After the civil rights era, the narrative of civilian black men and women did not appeal to the interests and ideals of the mainstream media. In the 1950’s, Black stories were dictated by the white press through the lens of white supremacy. The facts of important events in the Civil Rights Movement were reported inaccurately and ignored. However, the Black is Beautiful and Black Power movements blossomed in the 1960’s under the influence of leaders such as Stokely Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King. Though other groups like the Nation of Islam promoted black separatism, a sense of pride in blackness was apparent.
Blackness: Not a Fixed Identity
Despite this growing pride, a Black woman begins to compare herself to the depictions of white beauty at a young age. The desire for a silky, straight hair texture and lighter complexion sometimes develop in the minds of young Black girls. The media and socialization play an impactful role in perception of one’s self image. Since the enslavement of Black people, Black women experienced objectification and sexualization by white authorities. Certain characteristics allowed favorable black women to “pass” amid affluent whites. Light-skinned enslaved Black women worked in the master’s house. Opposed to dark-skinned enslaved Black women, who had to work outside in the fields.
A Black man adheres to similar constraints of self-expression. Everyday, stereotypes of Black men surface in films and circulate through the news and on social media platforms. The portrayal of the Black man as a threat, a savage and a brute are not foreign. Black men are 59 percent more likely to be pulled over and arrested by police than Black women. A racist history of negative assumptions and criminal allegations work against the identity of African-American men.Racism and sexism in the United States is far from resolved.
Today, a Black person may encounter discrimination such as microaggressions within the hegemonic white society. Discriminatory behavior and rhetoric have thrived in academic institutions and corporate work environments such as hair discrimination. Progress has been made in some corporation’s grooming policies. Companies like UPS lifted their ban on facial hair and natural hairstyles. The diversity and inclusivity within training programs at predominantly white companies also continue to grow as Black people embrace their aesthetic.
Enforcing the Law & Embracing Black Hair
The Crown Act, Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, was introduced to the public in late 2019 by the CROWN Coalition. Dove, the National Urban League, Color of Change and Western Center on Law & Poverty make up the CROWN Coalition along with a number of other supportive organizations and policymakers. The act is to guarantee that Black men and women can wear their natural hair without the fear of discrimination or bias. The Crown Act was introduced by the State Senator of California and LA County (2nd District) Supervisor-elect, Holly J. Mitchell. Mitchell named the Crown Act and propelled its confirmation into law in her state. Thus far, the Crown Act was signed into law in seven states, CA, WA, CO, VA, NY, NJ, and MD.
In 2019, Dove and the JOY Media Collective conducted a research study to shed light on the racism and discrimination women with natural hairstyles face in the workplace. The study deduced that Black women’s hair is policed more frequently than non-black women. Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home because of their hair. In regard to company grooming, black women are made to be “more aware” of policies than non-Black women. The non-black sample included about 92 percent White women. The natural hairstyles worn by Black women were rated “less ready”, implying a lack of job performance.
The JOY Media Collective is a marketing agency and content catalyst led by Howard University Alumna, Kelli Richardson Lawson. JOY’s clients span from BET and OWN to Dove. Imeirah Page, a recent graduate of Howard University and a 2019 marketing intern with the JOY Media Collective, participated in Dove’s campaign and photoshoot for the Crown Act. Page appreciated the purposeful work and network that she built with JOY’s Lawson and Chief Operating Officer, Orlena Blanchard. Lawson and Blanchard saw the potential in Page and invested in her monetarily, helping her complete her final year at Howard.
JOY Media acted as a stepping stone to other amazing opportunities for Page. She has completed campaigns for AARP, spoke on behalf of Dove at the Ubiquitous Hair Show in DC. For JOY’s client, Dove, Page and her team collected petition signatures and gathered metrics and deliverables. Page knew that “because it’s only through these little milestones that we had developed within our team at JOY… they were able to carry it forward and get it pushed to the federal level.”
“Their drive for their company and their goals and vision made me remember how much drive I used to have for myself,” emphasized Page. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Page’s personal experience with her identity as a Black woman changed her outlook on life. “I have to bet on myself,” stated Page. After attending an all girls private school and being the only Black girl on her track team, Page realized that “…for as long as history has been written down, there has been the suppression of women.”
Page never let in the biased opinions and assumptions of others. “We were all in this together trying to fight to not be ridiculed in public spaces… I feel like the CROWN Coalition has been a long time coming.” Page asked questions in corporate spaces. She held onto her values and acted intentionally in photoshoots, hallways and conference rooms.
The value in her Black womanhood taught Page to see herself as a source of positivity and talent when applying to jobs and accepting opportunities. Before working for JOY as a full-time employee, Page went to New Orleans, Louisiana for Essence Fest in July 2019. Page and her team collected over 10,000 signatures for the enactment of the Crown Act. Page expressed her sincere gratitude for this opportunity because of her ability to impact young Black girls.
“We were all in this together trying to fight to not be ridiculed in public spaces… I feel like the CROWN Coalition has been a long time coming.”
Page surpassed many trials and tribulations as a young Black woman. From having a gun pulled on her in her hometown to her personal growth, Imeriah Page is a living testimony for young Black girls everywhere. Knowing one’s worth and not negotiating your terms/beliefs are vital to Black women. Page understands the value she brings to all the spaces she enters. The intersection of sexism and racism often places Black women at an odds.
Learning While Black
Race and identity also impacts how school administrators and students interact with one another. There have been recurring instances of students of color being told to cut their locs or straighten their curls, attested to the discrimation that exists. Some school policies on grooming or dress codes lack the consideration of a diverse student body. Howard University Student Association President, Rachel Howell, experienced judgement and bullying for her hair and black image while growing up in her hometown of Georgia. Her socialization in the predominantly-white South forced her to combat negative opinions through leadership. During her time at Howard, Howell interned with the late Congressman John Lewis on the UNCF and the Collective Pac, a group that only endorses Black progressive candidates.
“I am always around Black people where I don’t have to feel like I need to tone my hair down or explain why I decided to get a new hairstyle…”
Howell’s voice acts as a reminder to authority that Black people deserve better. “I am always around Black people where I don’t have to feel like I need to tone my hair down or explain why I decided to get a new hairstyle…” Howell fought back against misrepresentation in her high school for Black History Month. The school planned a luncheon with fried chicken and other stereotypical “Black foods”. Howell knew that was “really disrespectful” and addressed the issue with her principal. She went on to start the first Black Student Union in her high school’s history.
Rikki Richelle, 27, is the co-founder of the Nappy Head Club, a stylist and digital creator. Richelle’s biracial mother has a different hair texture than her. “My mom wouldn’t take me to get my hair done and I would have to do my own hair,” said Richelle. In middle school, Richelle did her own hair. She struggled with the damage of perms and breakage from wigs/weaves. The unhappiness with hair affected her and made her feel insecure. After dropping out of college and transitioning back to her natural texture, Richelle cut her hair and grew a new appreciation for it in her 20s.
Richelle said, “…it’s been the most rewarding to be in control of my own life, control of my own money. I don’t have to worry about looking, talking or acting a certain way to please people 24/7.” As a freelance creator, Richelle incorporates her visions of acceptance into her style, business and social media platforms. Maintaining your own business can be a struggle. Richelle started the Nappy Head Club with her sister and Art Director and Founder, Rachel Danielle. Richelle and her sister maintain the best interest of one another as well as the creative direction of their brand. With over 27,000 Instagram followers, the knowledgeable blog posts and awe-inspiring photoshoots highlight Black hair and Black beauty in a unique way.
Richelle experienced a fondness and newfound closeness with her hair. The act of moisturizing and conditioning her hair became self care for her. Rikki Richelle and Rachel Danielle created the Nappy Head Club out of bonding and conversations about their experiences with their hair. “We didn’t really feel that [the] media, for example, Instagram, commercials, TV, YouTube, [really] reflected the girl with kinkier hair.” Richelle and her sister started the Nappy Head Club together. The dynamic sisters continue to promote self-love and a genuine appreciation for diversity in blackness. Nappy Head Club clothing and The Good Hair Collection are now available for purchase.
“…it’s been the most rewarding to be in control of my own life, control of my own money. I don’t have to worry about looking, talking or acting a certain way to please people 24/7.”
Working While Black
Dr. Lisa Haileab Daniels, a sports psychotherapist with Howard University’s Counseling Services and Athletic Department, wrote her 2017 doctoral dissertation on Shaded Love and Violence: Internalized Colorism, Femininity, Depression and Dating Violence. She broke down the disdains of being oppressed as a black woman, negotiating blackness in predominantly white spaces. Also, the correlation between depression and intimate partner violence show that African-American college women tend to be in or stay in abusive relationships.
Dr. Daniels is an African American and Eritrean woman from Northeast Washington, DC. Growing up, dance was the outlet through which Daniels expressed her identity. She attended the Jones-Haywood Dance School for ballet and trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Being a classically trained ballet dancer “…not only teached me discipline but helped to improve my self-esteem,” said Daniels. By working with students from inner cities, Daniels found that sports was a major outlet for them. She believed that one’s personal barriers did not define their life story. Student athletes battle with body image, nutrition and self-confidence. With respect to the varying shades of Black women, colorism is also a major barrier in sports.
“[For] Black women especially, there’s this pressure to appear, as far as what it means to look professional.”
Dr. Lisa Haileab Daniels
In the midst of white beauty and white advertising, being black and a woman highlighted one’s invisibility to the world. The availability of job openings and promotional opportunities shrank along with the self-esteem of the Black woman. Racial disparities and geographic location impact the way a Black person exists in the United States. According to this research study on the mental health of U.S. Black women, intimate partner violence, acute life events, financial stressors, and employment stressors negatively affect Black women.
Dr. Daniels dissertation referenced a thought-provoking concept on femininity for Black women in relation to white women. “Womanhood has been ascribed a traditional dichotomous definition: good girl-bad girl, virgin-seductress and angel-whore (Fordham, 1993). It is notable that white womanhood is typically seen as a cultural universal and labeled femininity (Forham, 1993). Black womanhood becomes the opposite of femininity and to be feminine, one must become white (Fordham, 1993).” The article delved into the minimization of the young Black women in school environments. ‘Loudness’, among other assessments of character, impacted their academic achievement. “[For] Black women especially, there’s this pressure to appear, as far as what it means to look professional,” said Daniels.
Black features are marketable in capitalistic society. Hair has always been a means of conversation and income in the Black community. Whether it is natural hair or weaves/wigs, Black women reinvented hairstyles to express themselves in beauty constantly. The deep history of enslaved ancestors lie in the coily and kinky strands of textured, Black hair. Braids and cornrows were used by enslaved people to map out pathways to freedom. To this day, hair embodies a symbol of strength and resistance.
Yared Abraham, an Area Manager at Amazon, faced judgement for his facial hair in previous positions. Abraham would not shave his facial hair off completely. It has grown to be a part of his personal aesthetic as a Black man. Some people assume Abraham is of Muslim descent because of his last name. He is not. Yared Abraham is a 24-year-old Ethiopian man.“In the current spaces I share with my colleagues of color, I noticed that my impact is not measured by my appearance but rather what I bring to the table, ” said Abraham. Recently, he led an initiative that donated 1000 backpacks (full of school supplies) and 35 kindles to Frederick Elementary School. This was his first event as a board member of the Black Employee Network at Amazon.
“In the current spaces I share with my colleagues of color, I noticed that my impact is not measured by my appearance but rather what I bring to the table.”
Advancements in diversity and inclusion policies empower Abraham to be himself unapologetically. His direct leadership consists of individuals of color who embrace their identities through an Amazon initiative, BEN or Black Employee Network. BEN provides mentionship to current Amazon employees with its mission to “recruit, retain, and empower Black employees.”