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A natural hair demonstration in Brazil.

Black Hair and Employment Discrimination

By Jan 29, 2017

Image credits: Marcos Musse

Last November, I attended the “Is Feminism White?” conference organized by the Centre for Immigration Policy Evaluation. The four hour conference held at Concordia University was led by six panelists, most of whom were women of colour. Some shared their research and others talked about their personal experiences working in various fields ranging from genetic law to social work.

One speech that resonated with me was that of Ida Ngueng Feze, Academic Associate at the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University. Her speech was about natural hair. As a Black woman, I immediately related to the central part that hair plays in shaping our identity and therefore how it shapes the way others perceive us. Though the title of her speech alone resonated with me in an instant, I could sense a rising air of hesitation from many non-Black people in the room. Unlike them, Ms. Ngueng Feze and many other Black women such as myself have been asked on several occasions by classmates, friends, and even strangers if they could touch our hair. I do not mean to put anyone who has ever asked to touch someone else’s hair on the spot - at least you asked for permission - but this need to feel the texture of a Black girl’s natural hair reinforces this impression that natural Black hair is ‘other’. Recognizing an aesthetic feature of a group as inherently 'other' can be dangerous because it lays the groundwork for discrimination against individuals with said characteristics. The fact of the matter is that for many Black people today, Black hair and employment discrimination are increasingly related. I am thus glad that Ms. Ngueng Feze brought this to light. Indeed, the United States’ Federal Court made employment discrimination against individuals wearing dreadlocks and similar hairstyles legal on September 15th 2016. Therefore, a discourse on the ways in which natural Black hair fits into systemic discrimination of Black individuals was definitely warranted during a conference about intersectional feminism.

The main question reiterated during her speech was: “Why is it that our natural hair, the hair that grows from our scalp, is seen as an inherently undesirable characteristic?”. For those of you who are not familiar with the terms natural and relaxed, natural hair is usually curly, kinky, and/or coily whereas relaxed hair has been chemically manipulated to obtain a straight texture. I won’t get into the natural hair revolution here, but suffice it to say that for a very long time - and still today amongst certain people - natural hair has been considered bad and relaxed hair good. The reason behind this implicit association, Ms. Ngueng Feze argued, is that straight hair allows Black women to come closer to fulfilling Eurocentric beauty ideals. Indeed, the prevailing mentality among many Black communities is that the closer you get to achieving European beauty standards, the more desirable you are. By this logic, the over-representation of light skin women with silky long hair and narrow European noses and the underrepresentation of dark-skinned women with kinky afros and large noses in the media makes more sense.

Recognizing an aesthetic feature of a group as inherently 'other' can be dangerous because it lays the groundwork for discrimination against individuals with said characteristics.

In addition to seeking acceptance by adhering to Eurocentric beauty ideals, Ms. Ngueng Feze explained that the pressure to relax or straighten your hair also has professional roots (if I may use the pun). While in law school in Montreal, she revealed that she had been strongly urged to straighten her hair for interviews so that she could be taken seriously by prospective employers. When she revealed this, you could sense that those who had once been skeptical about the relevance of natural hair during a panel about feminism were completely convinced.

The fact of the matter is that for many Black people today, Black hair and employment discrimination are increasingly related.

I would like to extend on Ms. Ngueng Feze’s narrative of discrimination. Though Canada has yet to make discrimination against individuals with dreadlocks and similar hairstyle lawful, there have been several cases of microaggressions in the workplace against Black individuals. Last April, Cree Ballah, a Zara employee in Ontario was taken aside by her employer and told that her braids were unprofessional and that they went against the company’s "look." Mind you, that at the time of this incident some of Cree’s coworkers had bright dyed hair - which was not allowed under the company’s dress code, but they were not reprimanded for it. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, unprofessional is defined as “lacking or showing a lack of expert skill”. How exactly did Cree Ballah’s braids show a lack of expert skill? Her braids were neat and they adhered to the company’s restriction on bright coloured hair (unlike some of her coworkers) and so it becomes incredibly clear that employers dub braids and other hairstyles as unprofessional as a means of discrimination. This is an unfair practice because protective hairstyles such as braids, twists, and dreadlocks are an integral part of natural Black hair, allowing it to grow and stay healthy. Discriminating against these protective hairstyles is therefore more than just discriminating against a look - it also disables Black individuals from keeping their hair healthy. A policy against bright dyed hair, if and when it is enforced of course, does not disable non-Black individuals in the same sense. Therefore, dubbing braids and dreadlocks as unprofessional simply creates another grounds upon which employers can discriminate against Black individuals, since discriminating against us for the colour of our skin is now frowned upon.   

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