By Andrew Cohen
A Berkeley Law professor is fighting to eliminate hairstyle policies that she says discriminates against Black women. Angela Onwuachi-Willig has an impressive pedigree: five degrees, including three from Yale. A leading scholar on employment discrimination and family law, she has received numerous awards for her research, writing, teaching, and community service.
Yet, at some U.S. schools, Onwuachi-Willig would not be considered an appropriate role model for students because she wears her hair in locs; were she a student herself, she might not be allowed to sit in the classroom. The reason: A growing number of schools across the country are enacting policies that bar braids, twists, locs, and Afros—and disproportionately impact Black students.
“The reasons most commonly provided are that such hairstyles are faddish, extreme, distracting, and unprofessional,” said Onwuachi-Willig, who has researched grooming code policies for more than a decade and wrote a seminal paper on employer hairstyle guidelines in 2010. “What’s troubling is that banning these hairstyles essentially tells Black girls and women—nearly all of whom have tightly coiled hair or coiled hair that grows into an Afro—that the hair they were born with is faddish, extreme, distracting, and unprofessional. It sets up a standard that appears neutral in its language but is actually racially discriminatory.”
In May, a private school in Tallahassee informed a student that she could not return in the fall if she kept her Afro. One week later, twin sisters at a charter school near Boston received detention and were barred from extracurricular activities and prom because they refused to change their braided hairstyles.
In response, Onwuachi-Willig and three fellow law school professors—Trina Jones (Duke), Kimberly Norwood (Washington University-St. Louis), and Wendy Greene (Cumberland)—co-drafted letters calling for the elimination of such policies. Led by Greene, they obtained signatures from more than 120 U.S. and international scholars, and sent the letters to every state’s department of education and school board president.
An unfair burden
The letter noted how such policies force Black girls to change their natural hair texture via chemical products or extreme heat, cut it off, or wear a wig or weave. The first and most common method, the authors explained, requires an expensive, time-consuming process that can cause physical damage to one’s hair and scalp.
When Onwuachi-Willig began research grooming code cases in 2006, she noticed that most scholars failed to realize “how these policies essentially started with the hair texture of white women as the baseline and, in so doing, told Black women that their natural hair is unacceptable.” In turn, she said these policies “discriminate against Black women by imposing costs in time, money, pain, and emotional well-being.”
It later became a more personal issue when her daughter—then 7—began asking for straightened hair. Onwuachi-Willig briefly relented, using a flat iron, but soon thought of how burdensome it was for Black parents to spend inordinate time “trying to meet this implicit white norm about hair—and that was just for straightening, not even for styling.”
The few times she did straighten her daughter’s hair, “I began to say things like ‘Don’t get your hair wet,’” Onwuachi-Willig said. “Children want to play without worrying about getting their hair wet. They want to go swimming or even play in the rain. With our natural hairstyles, we can do all of those things freely. Once I found myself saying those things, I stopped straightening her hair. I realized that I was reinforcing implicit negative messages about our hair to her. ”
The road ahead
Onwuachi-Willig laments a recent “really horrible decision” by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in a suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Alabama on behalf of a Black woman who wore a natural hairstyle. The court upheld a district court decision that dismissed the Complaint, concluding that the EEOC had not even asserted a viable claim of race discrimination.
“This decision portends continued difficulty for Black women who want to wear natural hairstyles in the workplace—and, by extension, schools—because it set forth faulty reasoning that other courts will likely rely on,” Onwuachi-Willig said. “The court actually asserts: ‘It may be that today ‘race’ is recognized as a ‘social construct’ … But our possible current reality does not tell us what the country’s collective zeitgeist was when Congress enacted Title VII half a century ago.’ It’s a rather astounding statement because it rejects science, which makes it clear that race is a social construct.”
After banning twists and locs and limiting braids in 2014, the U.S. Army—on the heels of growing protests—altered its regulations to allow twists under the same conditions as it allowed braids. In February, the Army lifted its ban on locs, permitting them under the same conditions as braids and twists. They must be uniform in size and shape, evenly spaced, and up to a half-inch in width.
“Still, these conditions, if strictly enforced, are highly restrictive,” Onwuachi-Willig said. “Anyone who has braided or loc-ed hair knows no such hairstyle can be completely uniform in size and shape and completely evenly spaced. I doubt the Army means to be literal in its policy, but why not just say one’s hair must be ‘well-groomed’ or ‘well-kept’”?
In response to their letter, Onwuachi-Willig and her colleagues have received positive replies from governmental offices in several states. One such official wrote: “Thanks for sending this info to me. I can’t imagine a more glaring example of privilege at best (explicit bias, at worst) to say that someone’s hair, as it naturally grows out of their head, is distracting and bad for school.”