Working to Untangle Hair Discrimination

Coretta Almon photo

The following article by Coretta Almon, program director at VMLY&R Dallas, was published by Shots magazine. Click here to read the article on Shots website.

Sitting on my mom’s sideboard is a picture of a three-year-old me with the biggest, perfectly round afro. I always smile when I see that picture.

As a kid I remember the days of sitting there getting my hair plaited or visiting my older cousins in Chicago with hair beads in tote, because I knew it was going to be a long summer day of sitting on the front porch for hours, getting my hair braided.

However, there was this unspoken rite of passage that many little Black girls long for, and that was getting a hair perm or Jeri Curls. Within the recesses of our history, it has been instilled that perming and straightening our hair was more aesthetically pleasing and manageable. For years, I permed my hair religiously every two weeks, not realising all the stress the chemicals were putting on my strands.

Within the recesses of our history, it has been instilled that perming and straightening our hair was more aesthetically pleasing and manageable.

Although I was a regular in the shop, my hair always looked great, but it never flourished. One day I decided I was done with perms and never returned to the salon. Little did I know my permed hair was also done with me. It all immediately fell out by the brush load, illustrating how strong the perm was and how dependent my hair was on the chemicals. From there I went TWA (Tiny Weeny Afro) and celebrated getting back to being me; healthy, natural hair, and that little girl in the picture.    

I am overjoyed that there is a renewed passion and awareness for natural beauty and pride in the Black community, just like in the early 70s. It has, however, revealed that there is still a great deal of education and the tearing down of barriers needed. Hair discrimination is a real issue as there are countless cases across the country to prove it, which is why Senator Holly J. Mitchell introduced the Crown Act, which was passed into law on July 3 2019, to fight these injustices.

This law [which prohibits employers and schools from enforcing purportedly ‘race neutral’ grooming policies restricting natural hair styles] has passed in 13 states with 37 more to go, and it speaks volumes as some states have denied the law, still making hair discrimination legal. “Unconscious bias influences decisions we make every day, including those that end up in employee handbooks and impact hiring.” - Adjoa B. Asamoah (Policy Maker and Lead Activist of The Crown Act). 

Hair discrimination is a real issue as there are countless cases across the country to prove it.

Natural hair in Black culture has carried many emotional, cultural, and historical scars, and is yet another layer of systemic racism that powers use to dictate what is acceptable. I could go as far back as slavery, when African’s were stripped of their identities by having their heads shaved to classify and enforce subservience. Or how desegregation triggered insurmountable tension, which caused an urgency to fit in, and fostered straightening. 

For decades, Black people have assimilated into what European society has deemed as beauty - either by force, necessity, compliance, or a desire to fit in - implying that Black hair needed to be tamed or altered in some manner. And before you say, no one is getting off slave ships or in segregation anymore – let’s just say this is where the problem began, and it has not been corrected.

When you see me, I don’t want you to look past my hair, or act as if it doesn’t exist. I want people to realise and accept that this is me being my authentic self, as it is for anyone else who chooses to wear their hair in its natural state. Yes, we have different textures, hence the reason we can create different styles and need various methods to maintain them. This is why it is so important for the advertising industry need to get it right. From my experience, agencies seem more open to employees' self-expression than other lines of business, but there is still a lack of acceptance and understanding from key decision-makers that makes forward movement on this issue difficult.

I recently participated in a discussion on hair discrimination, and we talked about the myth that there is a shortage of Black creative resources in advertising – these resources include that talent that acts in ads, agency staff, or vendors to support the work. The reality is that Black creative resources are available. What we’re missing is representation and understanding of unique differences. For example, styling BIPOC hair requires specific products, hair tools and processes that are not the same for everyone. We need true appreciation for representation and authentic insights at every step of the process, whether you’re casting an ad or selecting a vendor.

If you have to change who you are to make others feel comfortable, then you are not free.” That’s a quote I heard a while ago that has stuck with me. Choosing to wear my hair naturally, without chemicals, heat, or tools for manipulation, is just that; me being free.