The following article by Jewel Mensah, Associate Connections Director at VMLY&R, was published by Adweek. Click here to read the article on Adweek website.
Go ahead, caress your scalp. How does your hair feel? Mine feels illustrious. Yet, the dominant standards of beauty might have you perceiving it otherwise. You see, for a while, I held the same perceptions. For the bulk of my youth, haircare revolved around haircuts; for me, they needed to be bi-weekly to preserve the social value of the clean-cut. At least, that’s what I grew up learning from those around me and the social pressures regarding presentability for Black men. I truth, my hair grew too fast, and the fears of ‘unkempt’ hair vis-à-vis professional presentation had crept in before I even had the chance to become a professional.
All of this was in sound concern, of course. My mother understood the need to protect how I was perceived. As recently as 2019, a Dove CROWN research study conducted by the JOY Collective found that Black women’s hair is 3.4x more likely to be perceived as unprofessional. After centuries of policing Black women and filtering what is acceptable through their image, the natural expression of Black hair should be seen as nothing but revolutionary; especially in professional spaces where the economics of labor remain stacked against BIPOC talent. To understand the scale of this fear of scrutiny and discrimination, the study also found that 80% of Black women are more likely to agree with the statement, “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in the office.”
This fear I had inherited regarding my hair followed me through to college, where academia allowed me to ask questions. It was not until I started asking myself what unabashed care looks like; that I started to uncover my truth. I began to wonder what yielding to the needs of my hair looked like because, for the longest time, I yielded to the fears of other’s perceptions. This brought about subtle changes. Instead of cutting my hair on routine, I fed it. Nurtured it much like I had been nurtured. Within a year my afro bloomed. By twisting my hair between my fingers and introducing an element of play to its texture, I changed its form from an afro to the locs that can be seen now. I realized back then that it is simply an extension of my body, and this body exists outside of any professional filters.
As we celebrate World Afro Day this year, I find myself returning to the vision set by Michelle De Leon, its founder to, “work with families, schools, and authorities to tackle discrimination against Afro Hair.” This Global Day of Recognition is endorsed by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human rights and a subtle reminder to me that the personal is indeed political. In the U.S. we have the CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” which is a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination and was first introduced in California in January 2019 and signed into law on July 3, 2019.
It is crucial that brands and advertisers understand this reality in the Black community. According to this Statista report from 2018, Black shoppers spent on average $473 million on hair care yearly, and that’s just in the U.S. alone. The nuance of Black hair is vast and developing products and messaging that speaks accurately and empathetically to those variations is important to connecting with Black consumers. From the hair pattern, pattern size, feel, all the way down to density, these are all nuances we are keenly aware of, and we want to see that reflected in our options when shopping for haircare products. The need to use products that are reflective of our natural state is matched by the yearning to see ourselves represented in the products that are marketed to us. Brands and advertisers can take that extra step toward inclusion at the very beginning. From product development to casting, lighting, and make-up for shoots, this inclusive approach would help in abating the perceptions and fear around Black hair in the workplace.
The CROWN Act is led by the CROWN Coalition, founded by Dove, National Urban League, Color Of Change, and Western Center on Law & Poverty. As of July 2, 2021, the CROWN Act is law in 13 U.S. states. Decades after the Civil Rights Act, we still must fight for civil rights every day. The CROWN Act is important because it can help end hair discrimination nationwide. World Afro Day should indeed be a reminder to us all that this discrimination is not geographically locked. Therefore, the work of representation and fostering more inclusive environments belongs to each of us. We cannot give in to the fear of disappointing norms nor shy away from ourselves in this moment.