Op-ed: For many, hair is not just hair

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Mashayla Hays is legal counsel for the Lawyering Project and a member of the ACLU-KY Breaking Barriers Council.

Imagine this: It’s your first day of school, and you have just woken up from a good night’s sleep. You have your first day of school outfit laid out and ready to go. The only thing you have to decide is how to do your hair. Do you keep it simple? Add some curls? Maybe you’ll finally try that new style you spent hours learning from YouTube? Everyone knows that first impressions are everything. 

For some, the pressure of how to wear their hair fades with time, the entrance to adulthood, and decreased social pressure. But for others, hair anxiety doesn’t go away. It changes into an internal struggle of deciding how to be yourself without bringing unwanted comments and policing of your hairstyle.

As Black folks began to wear more natural hairstyles, hair anxiety became an internal struggle of deciding how to be yourself without unwanted comments and policing. There was an increase in demeaning videos showing black people’s hair being cut to adhere to discriminatory sports policies and an increase in school policies prohibiting “protective” hairstyles because they were deemed a “distraction” to the classroom.

Imagine how it must feel knowing people base your worth on how you do your hair. Imagine having to spend every day educating people on why it is inappropriate to touch someone’s hair and explain that your hair did not actually “magically” grow overnight. Many folks don’t have to imagine this; but for Black and Brown folks there is a real possibility that our resume and accomplishments cannot outweigh prejudice of our hair. As a young attorney, I often agonized over these questions before an interview or going to work. It was the reality that my skin color and many of the hairstyles I wanted to wear are classified as “unprofessional.”

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For many, a hairstyle may not hold much significance. But in the Black community, hair is everything.  Our hair played a significant role in our survival during the slave trade and was used to store rice and gains and map escape routes to freedom. History also teaches us that Black hair was styled to signify status, age, wealth, and religion. Today, our hair symbolizes self-empowerment, acceptance, and resistance to assimilating into societal views of beauty, professionalism, and success. Hair discrimination is rooted in white European standards of beauty that often attempt to put intersectional beings into boxes that could never hold all of who we are.

There have been arguments that hair discrimination is not as serious as Black people make it out to be. My response to them is, there is a serious problem when Black people experience the loss of jobs and opportunities based on their hair after spending two to six times more money on their than their white counterparts. Black hair care is upholding economic success for thousands of white-led corporations while Black people continue to experience hair discrimination.

No one should have to worry about future success or worth being defined by the perspective bias of their hair. No one should lose their job, be sent home from school, or be dehumanized because of how they wear their hair. That’s why Kentucky should pass the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyles. So far, 18 other states have passed the CROWN Act, and several Kentucky communities have passed local ordinances banning hair discrimination. It is beyond time for these protections to extend to all Kentuckians. As a state, we should not wait for someone to tell us to step up and protect one another; doing the right thing should be the standard.

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Everyone deserves to live life as their authentic selves without fearing retaliation. I urge everyone to call their legislators and encourage them to pass the CROWN Act and end hairstyle discrimination for everyone in Kentucky, once and for all.

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