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For Black workers, an unwelcome workplace focus on their hair

Untangling the complex history of black hair
Untangling the complex history of black hair 06:17

Preschool teacher Devyn Marshall came to work one morning with her hair in tightly curled strands that fell down the sides of her face toward her shoulders. Shortly after arriving, Marshall was called into her supervisor's office.  

"It was brought to my attention that your hair is too extravagant for the workplace," Marshall recalled her supervisor saying. "She said, 'If you could just tone it down' and suggested I put it in a ponytail."

Marshall, who is 35 and lives in Los Angeles, said the 2015 incident felt like like a personal attack. "That really affected me," she added. "I felt it was too much control over who I am."

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Devyn Marshall, a preschool teacher in Los Angeles, California, said she was told her natural hairstyle wasn't appropriate in the workplace.  Courtesy of Devyn Marshall

Scores of Black Americans report similar stories of their employers passing judgment on their hair, with kinky curls, dreadlocks, cornrows and other natural hairstyles long a source of contention in the workplace and other venues. 

"This is not a petting zoo"

Turqouya Williams, 29, said she was a top performer at a Minneapolis social services agency four years ago when she was summoned to her director's office. Williams, who wore her hair in a curly afro, said she was told she'd look "more presentable" with straightened hair. That came after weeks of co-workers trying to touch her hair, calling it "big" and "fluffy."

"I don't like when people feel like they can comment on my appearance when I'm just trying to exist," Williams said. "This is not a petting zoo."

A cultural preoccupation with Black people's hair has also surfaced outside of work. In 2018, a New Jersey high school student was forced to cut off his dreadlocks to compete in a wrestling match. Last year, an 11-year-old cheerleader in Colorado was cut from a private cheer team because she didn't wear her hair in a ponytail like her White and Latina teammates. And two Texas high school students were suspended from school earlier this year because they refused to cut off their dreadlocks. 

Change may be afoot, however, with more states passing laws that explicitly ban natural hair discrimination and a renewed focus on racial issues this year triggered by the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. 

Welcoming authenticity

One major employer — United Parcel Service — has already updated its hair policy. UPS, once known for its restrictive rules on workers' appearance, said earlier this month that it now allows "a wider array of hair styles, facial hair and other personal appearance preferences" for employees.

Other companies will follow UPS in "a wave that's going to happen quickly," predicted Ruhal Dooley, a knowledge adviser with the Society of Human Resource Management. Negative publicity from any controversy over Black workers' hairstyles, amplified by social media, can stain a company's reputation and make it harder to attract employees of color, he added. 

California bans discrimination against natura... 05:21

Companies will ultimately revise their policies because "Generation Z and Millennials are going to demand things like this," Dooley said. 

As high-profile corporations such as Nike and Twitter publicly denounce racism following the Black Lives Matter protests, companies are also looking to update their internal policies and weed out anti-bias language, said Drexel University law professor Wendy Greene. UPS welcoming natural hair is just one example of that, she said. 

An employer accepting natural hairstyles tells Black employees "that they're welcome in their most authentic self and that you don't have to cover and suppress a part of yourself," Greene said. 

In 2019, California became the first state to ban discrimination against natural hair in work places and schools. New Jersey, New York and Virginia quickly followed. 

"There's a real cultural shift as it relates to embracing natural hair styles, and it's different than what was the case in the '50s and '60s," Greene said.

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