Beautiful As Is: Is Bias Against Natural Black Hair Shifting?

An Instagram video recently earned more than 500,000 views and another 300,000 likes on Twitter showing Ariyonna, a 4-year old dark-skin black girl, calling herself ugly. 

She was crying as an Atlanta hairstylist, Lil Wave Daddy, was doing her hair. 

“You are so pretty,” the hairstylist told her as she comforted her with affirmations.

“I’m black and beautiful,” Ariyonna says at the end of the video.  

A 4-year old understands the beauty standards that lead to unfair judgement and bias.

A deep and long history of bias against natural black hair has been shifting, and with the Netflix release of Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, we might be able to catch a glimpse into just how far we’ve come. 

California became the first state last summer to sign into law the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act, prohibiting the discrimination of someone based on their hair style and hair texture. 

This pivotal piece of legislation, although seemingly unnecessary, helps protect the rights of an individual to wear their own natural hair and be protected from discrimination because of that choice. 

Since the initial signing, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and just recently Virginia have enacted legislation to make it unlawful for people to be discriminated against because of their natural hair. 

Legislation like the CROWN Act may seem like far over-reaches of government’s power. But the reality is such measures are still necessary—as people are continuously discriminated against because of how they choose to wear their natural hair. 

A black Texas high-school senior, DeAndre Arnold, earlier this year faced in-school suspension—forbidding him from walking in his own high-school graduation—if he didn’t cut off his locks.

Ellen welcomed Texas high school senior DeAndre Arnold, who made national news after he was told by school officials that he had to cut off his dreadlocks in order to return to classes. DeAndre talked with Ellen about how he’s not allowed to walk at graduation and why he has stood his ground and has not given in to their policy. (TheEllenShow)

Another black high-school student, Andrew Johnson of New Jersey, forcibly had his locks cut in 2018 when a referee gave him the option of either cutting his locks or forfeiting his wrestling match. 

Power and privilege make some think they have the right and authority to dictate to others which hairstyle is acceptable in classrooms and in workspaces.

And deeming some hairstyles professional or acceptable, while others—such as locks—are not is just one way that those in power deem who gets hired, who gets promoted, and who is allowed to simply exist as they naturally are. 

All of this talk about acceptability of natural hair, boils down to bias: Organizations must expand their idea of the qualities that they deem professional and acceptable. 

Not addressing this bias about who and what is deemed professional cripples an organization’s ability to hire and promote the best candidates—regardless of how they seemingly “fit in” to the organization’s majority culture. 

This perception of professionalism, and who is able to craft and change the narrative about who professionals are and how they look, has some of the most damaging effects on women of color. 

Former First Lady Michelle Obama faced her own backlash as a black woman on what it meant to be beautiful and a woman existing as her own self having to face the horrible brunt of ridicule. She was often pictured as too masculine and compared to an ape in pictures or comments. 

Beautiful As Is: Is Bias Against Natural Black Hair Shifting?
Pictured: Michelle Obama speaks to guests at the Obama Foundation Summit at Illinois Institute of Technology on October 29, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (TIME)

Her dark skin and athletic build provided ammunition for the most vocal of her critics.

It’s often those black women whose shade of skin is farthest from white and whose hair texture is farthest from straight that feel the full blow of others’ biases about beauty. 

I understand. It is hard and emotionally taxing as a dark-skin woman of color to push back against such standards and stand in what I know to be naturally, authentically and beautifully me. 

Yes, there are some indications of a cultural shift. 

From Issa Rae to Cardi B, women are showing off their natural hair and are inspiring more and more women to embrace their own beauty—regardless of how they may be viewed or judged by others. 

Earlier this year, “Hair Love,” a story about a black father trying to do his daughter’s hair, won an Oscar at the Academy Awards.

With this pivotal animated short story, director Matthew Cherry wanted to create space for more representation and normalization of black hair. 

But the larger question is: Who is deciding what is professional and what is acceptable?

For issues from professional hairstyles to what is deemed beautiful and valuable, it tends to be the majority, dominant culture that makes such unilateral decisions. 

For Black people, often the pieces of ourselves that represent our own heritage or indigenous roots are those very things deemed unprofessional, un-beautiful and unacceptable. 

Society has a larger responsibility to mitigate the negative impact of bias, realign thoughts and support policies on acceptability and professionalism. That way, no one—and certainly no 4-year-old—has to be reassured they are beautiful as is.


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About

Joli Angel Robinson is the Manager of Community Engagement at the Dallas Police Department and Co-Chair for Truth, Racial Healing, & Transformation efforts in Dallas. She is working on her Doctorate from University of Southern California in Organizational Change and Leadership and is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.