Corporations Are Repaying Black Essential Workers By Discriminating Against Their Natural Hair
Major corporations still have policies that do not explicitly protect Black hairstyles or end the gray area for franchisers to discriminate.
March 17, 2022 at 3:47 pm
The workplace, as the standard of professionalism, has always been a battleground between respectability and Black people’s authenticity. Whether it’s simple water cooler conversation or bias presented through performance reviews, Black workers can face discrimination and harassment that becomes amplified when contrasted with the standards of what is accepted to be “professional” and what is not. In an economy built on the exploitation of Black labor, it is overdue that workplace discrimination is prioritized by advocates and leaders in order to ensure protections for those most likely to be targeted by it — Black women.
Black hair has often been a source of conversation. In the workplace, opinions of “professionalism” tainted by respectability politics and assimilation leads to heavy exclusion against Black women. As 97% of Black employees are reporting they are not ready to go back to work environments riddled with microaggressions, it’s time for corporations to take cases of workplace discrimination seriously if they’re truly dedicated to equity.
Imani Jackson decided to stop her extensive morning hair routine and wear her hair naturally to work — she was fired within a month with employers citing she needed to “look more professional” and appeared as if she “rolls out of bed.” Pensacola high school senior Jacob Rush made national headlines when school administrators threatened to ban him from his own graduation if he did not cut his dreadlocks. Hair discrimination is ongoing and some of the nation’s largest corporations are most at fault for letting this form of racism linger.
Major corporations like McDonald’s, Publix, Walmart and healthcare companies, all of which employed “frontline workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, still have policies that do not explicitly protect Black hairstyles or end the gray area for franchisers to discriminate. This would require an update to corporate grooming standards, including explicit protections for afro-texture hair and associated protective styles. As Black women are often overrepresented in the “frontline” workforce, it is especially important to rid these potentially harmful policies as we continue to grapple with pandemic bounceback.
According to the Center for American Progress, the top five occupations held by Black women were deemed as frontline workers during the pandemic — Black nursing assistants, cashiers, registered nurses, personal care aides and elementary school teachers received little working protections and were at particular risk of exposure. Industries like nursing assistants and home health aides see an overrepresentation of Black women and underscore the heightened pressure of these positions during the ongoing public health crisis. In customer service and retail industries, the high percentage of Black women have been used as bargaining chips for the country’s economic recovery.
Now, the industries that survived because of the contributions of Black women are choosing to either directly discriminate against them or allow franchises to take advantage of policy loopholes.
Corporations like Publix claim their hair policy is that “hair must be groomed and shouldn’t cover your eyes or face.” We all know if biased decision-makers are given an inch, they make sure to take a mile. This has allowed different managers and franchisers to actively discriminate against textured hair, leading to an Equal Employment Opportunity lawsuit in 2017. Evidently, these policies do not foster an environment of equity and proper protections for Black workers, so why keep them? Companies like UPS have taken the steps necessary to enact specific protections for natural hair and ban discriminatory policies — we must see more comprehensive and explicit protections for natural Black hair.
This treatment for Black women is especially ingrained into the history of working conditions in American culture. The intersections of systemic racism and sexism specifically target Black women and hair discrimination policies are a manifestation of the overlap of identities. Having the highest labor force participation amongst all women, many of today’s thriving industries would not be as successful without the contributions, and sacrifices, of the Black women who fuel corporations and businesses.
Black people were the backbone of many industries during the pandemic. At minimum, we deserve equal treatment in the workplace. If corporations are truly dedicated to equity and justice, they must rid themselves of targeted policies at every level and take an overt stance against workplace discrimination.
There have been substantial and notable strides in the implementation of the CROWN Act, and this same kind of progress is attainable. We have the power to demand corporations follow the lead of legislative actions and implement affirmative hair policies for Black people in these businesses.