Given the current political climate, it should unfortunately come as no surprise — even to the most privileged among us — that racism is alive and well in America. With the growing popularity of the #MeToo movement, it’s come to light that many women have been forced to remain silent about the harassment they’ve endured in their work environments.
Black women in the labor force know both of these truths all too well. From sexually inappropriate behavior to ignorant opinions pertaining to hairstyles, working women of color have seen it all as it pertains to inequality.
In both their personal and professional lives, black women have long since been taught that natural hair gives off the “wrong impression”. Destroying one’s hair with heat, chemicals, and synthetic weaves was deemed a necessity in order to be thought of as “beautiful” and “worthy” of respect. Even though a survey conducted by Dove found that 70% of women agreed that a “beauty product” is any product that makes them feel more confident, hair care items have often been more about fitting in through a white lens than embracing what makes girls and women truly beautiful and unique. It’s no wonder that the haircare market is now worth $500 billion or so.
Yet, retailers like Walmart have come under fire for specifically putting their black hair care products under lock and key.
The message here is that while society says black women have to go to great lengths to make their hair “acceptable,” society also believes that people of color cannot be trusted not to steal. Talk about adding insult to injury. The corporate giant is now being sued for discriminatory practices, but whether the court injunction will make a difference remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the natural hair movement is still going strong. Many beauty brands have embraced the movement in both their ads and their product offerings. The visibility of women and men who choose to wear their hair natural continues to grow. But in the workplace, braids and afros aren’t always seen as unacceptable.
A federal appeals court ruled in 2016 that employers were perfectly well within their rights to discriminate against employees with traditionally black hairstyles, like dreadlocks. The court ruled that while discriminating against black hair texture was a no-no, it was totally fine to make decisions based on black hair styles because they are, in theory, able to be changed. While women have an average of 104 different hairstyles during their lifetime, there are clearly some that aren’t seen as appropriate for women of color. Society views many traditional black hairstyles as being “messy” or “unkempt,” and now there’s no legal reason why employers and even schools can’t openly show their prejudice.
A 2016 study entitled “Good Hair” illustrates just how deep the issue goes.
Of course, there have been countless instances throughout history and even in recent events wherein white women have been applauded for appropriating black hairstyles. This further proves that it’s not the style itself that’s the problem; it’s the color of the woman who wears it.
Kim Kardashian was just called out yet again for her Fulani-style braids, which the star instead attributed to Bo Derek.
These beaded cornrows have actually been around since at least 3000 B.C.– the style of braiding originally indicated the tribe to which the wearer belonged. The clapbacks to Kim K’s choice were understandably strong; not only is Kardashian’s decision to wear them considered cultural appropriation, but the fact she gave Derek credit for them is even more offensive.
Huffington Post’s Zeba Blay explained in 2015:
“When black women … criticize white women like Kylie Jenner or Rita Ora for wearing black styles, it’s not simply out of this need to deny access to something simply for the sake of it. To you, white women, it’s just a cool hairstyle. To us, it’s something we’ve fought to be able to fully embrace. There are other ways to admire or celebrate black hair without coopting it. But understand — black hair can be deeply political, deeply spiritual, and deeply personal.”
Hair-related discrimination is not the only burden black women have to bear at work.
While research has found that employees who have control over the layout and design of their workplace are 32% more productive and are generally happier and healthier, many black women may feel they have little control over their work environments at all. A new report from Comparably has revealed that young black women are the most likely to be sexually harassed at work.
Despite the fact that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers and ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely to do so, black women are seemingly the most vulnerable to workplace harassment — which can bring down any company. Although 26% of all women across all industries surveyed cited they’d experienced sexual harassment at work, 23% of African American workers say they have experienced it. In addition, 33% of African American workers of all genders between the ages of 18 to 25 have been verbally abused or harassed in a non-sexual way by their bosses.
Another recent poll even found that black women are more likely than other groups to say workplace sexual harassment is a serious problem: 86% of non-white women responded this way, while 74% of black men and only 72% of white women said the same. Although 65% of black employees in the Comparably feel that times are changing in part due to movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo, reports of discrimination and harassment even among big businesses continue to make headlines all across the country.
Until the issues of inequality between genders and races in both the workplace and in greater society are truly taken seriously, it’s important to keep fighting — as tired as we may be.