Black Women Share Shocking Stories Of Hair Discrimination At Work

Racial discrimination against natural hair is now illegal in California and New York after new laws were passed earlier this year. The move was seen as a huge milestone for the black community across the pond, with Thandie Newton praising the change, yet it left some black British women scratching their chins and wondering when the same would happen in the UK.
Workplace discrimination – on the basis of gender, race or religion – is illegal in the UK. But when it comes to racial discrimination related to hair, the lines are blurred, despite it being something black women constantly worry about. A study by the Perception Institute in 2017 found that one in five black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work and are much more likely than white women to feel anxiety over the issue.
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Bias towards black women's natural hair texture can take many forms, including comments about cultural hairstyle differences, whether hair is deemed 'tidy' or 'professional', or more concrete discrimination like making a hiring decision because of someone's hair.
Several instances of racial hair discrimination in the UK have made headlines in recent years. In 2015, Lara Odoffin, a Bournemouth University graduate, claimed her job offer was withdrawn because she wore her hair in braids and south Londoner Simone Powderly was offered a job on the condition that she took out her braids. Two years ago, a black woman applying for a job at Harrods was told to chemically straighten her hair.
According to solicitor Kevin Poulter, an employment partner at Freeths LLP, there is no legal framework in place to protect against racial hairstyle discrimination specifically. He told Refinery29: "There is no law in the UK specifically protecting against hair discrimination, but no employee should be made to feel inadequate and certainly not treated unfavourably because of their race, religion or haircut.

There is no law in the UK specifically protecting against hair discrimination, but no employee should be made to feel inadequate and certainly not treated unfavourably because of their race, religion or haircut.

"Questions can come up around whether hairstyles are 'professional' or 'tidy' but the difficulty is that these are subjective opinions and can lead to conscious or unconscious bias."
Philip Richardson, head of employment law at Stephensons, added that employers must show that their dress code policies are proportionate. "A person cannot adopt a policy such as a dress code and apply this to all, if the effect of that dress code would put those with a protected characteristic at a particular disadvantage.
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"UK law protects individuals against discrimination on grounds of several 'protected characteristics' such as race, age, disability and gender reassignment. While there is no protection for hair discrimination, you may be afforded protection under the Equality Act 2010 if you are treated less favourably linked to your hair or hairstyle because of your race."
In May the issue sparked a petition calling on the government to ban hair discrimination in the UK, which had garnered 75,000 signatures at the time of writing. While changing the law could help to protect individuals, Winnie Awa, founder of black haircare website Antidote Street, believes the issue goes deeper. "The conversation about true inclusion must start with empathy – the understanding that hair is not binary i.e. curly and straight and that there are so many textures out there.

It is rather absurd that hair should be used as an indication of how an individual might perform at work.

Winnie Awa, founder of Antidote Street
"It is rather absurd that hair should be used as an indication of how an individual might perform at work. Hair as it grows out of one’s head or even as an aesthetic choice has little to do with the skills, expertise or value that a person can bring to the workplace. Companies must pay attention to the role of unconscious bias in their hiring practices and actively seek to counter its effects."
To get a better understanding of the challenges and biases young black women face in the workplace, we spoke to three women about their experiences. This is what they had to say...
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Image Courtesy of Demi Colleen.
Image Courtesy of Demi Colleen
Demi Colleen, 25, is a registered veterinary nurse based in London.
What is your experience with hair discrimination at work?
I didn’t experience hair discrimination until I started working in a predominately white company. There are generally very few black people in the veterinary industry; most of the people within it are white and middle class with little knowledge of racial issues. Whenever my hair was out naturally I would get strange looks and comparisons to objects or animals – which I’m sure they thought was a cute, non-harmful compliment but felt dehumanising and unnecessary. Although nobody told me I couldn’t wear my hair naturally, I always knew there would be passive-aggressive comments and inappropriate invasions of my personal space (such as touching my hair without my permission) when I did.
Any incidents that stand out?
I recall telling the head nurse about protective hairstyles I used to wear when I was younger and swiftly being told: "Well you can’t do that here!" She clearly thought black hairstyles were 'wacky' and 'unprofessional' and I was going to be received better if I kept my hair straight.

Whenever my hair was out naturally I would get strange looks and comparisons to objects or animals.

Demi Colleen, 25
Did you report it?
No, management were all very close personally and there would’ve been no point. Instead I rocked up to work the next week with my hair in box braids.
How did it make you feel?
Although I was angry and upset to be made to feel as if my culture was not accepted, I knew that management was generally problematic and so their behaviour was not particularly surprising. Since then, I’ve moved to a different clinic where I was very vocal about racial discrimination within the workplace from the start. Luckily I’ve not had any issues here.
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Unfortunately there are stories almost every day where black children are being sent home from school or black people are given warnings at work for wearing their hair naturally. It’s becoming highlighted more than ever and I try to raise awareness on my blog and socials so that white people realise how the policing of black hair is racist.
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Image Courtesy of Zina Alfa
Image Courtesy of Zina Alfa
Zina Alfa, 27, is an app developer who lives in south London.
What is your experience with hair discrimination at work?
When I was about 13 or 14 I had this maths teacher who I'm convinced didn't like anyone black (call it unconscious bias or whatever). I came into school with braids and she was the only person to call me out on my hair. She said it was disgusting, not school policy and I needed to take it out immediately. I then had to go to the headteacher's office and was told to take it out. It wasn't until my mum came and fought my corner and said these were traditional protective styles that they eventually backed out. Thirteen years later I started the petition to end this form of discrimination.
Any incidents that stand out?
I've had hundreds of people tell me their story and not too long ago I was interviewing a startup where I was talking to the [female, mixed race] head of marketing. We were talking about my app and she said, "Oh does your app do faux locks? I would love to get those." Then her boss said: "Don't come into work like that… I will fire you if you come with dreadlocks." I was speechless.
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I keep my hair in weaves or wigs. My relationship with my hair is very complex and as a child, someone telling you your hair is disgusting is honestly the worst.

Zina Alfa, 27
How does all of this make you feel?
When I was young I didn't realise but it subconsciously traumatised me, I still don't ever really have my hair out in its natural form. I keep my hair in weaves or wigs. My relationship with my hair is very complex and as a child, someone telling you your hair is disgusting is honestly one of the worst things you could do. Already being in a school that was dominated by white children, my hair was another factor of me not fitting in so it absolutely crushed my self-esteem as a teenager. This is one of the reasons why I started the petition, in order to help others feel less inadequate.
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Image Courtesy of Thandi.
Image Courtesy of @_kasiamiller
Thandi Sibanda, 22, is a journalist and lives in London.
What is your experience with hair discrimination at work?
I’ve worked at a lot of newspapers that have newsrooms headed by white men. Once we were talking about a situation that one of the editors had misunderstood. Upon correcting him, he then replied: "Okay sister, don’t whip your hair back and forth."
Any other incidents you recall?
At a Christmas party, I wore a wig. Unprovoked, a coworker approaches me in front of everyone and says: "Ah God, you must be boiling in that!" I looked at her and said "No". She continued: "Are you not hot? Take it off."

Black girls are told what's correct and what's not when it comes to their hair – by the same people who appropriate our hairstyles at a later date.

Thandi sibanda, 22
Did you report any of this?
I have once tried to report an incident in which someone sexualised me and my afro hair. This was met with no repercussions.
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How does it make you feel?
When I didn't have a job I was happy to do what I wanted with my hair. Now, there is always a worry that perhaps hair can influence the way people treat you in the workplace. When I was younger I had a 'head of learning' call me into her office to ask if my pick and drop braids were "appropriate" and she told me to take them out "because they distract from learning". Unfortunately, this issue starts at a very young age.
I feel shocked but not surprised by it. Black girls are told what's correct and what's not when it comes to their hair – by the same people who will appropriate our hairstyles at a later date. It's always secondhand embarrassment as you get older, but for the younger generation, I can imagine it may cause a lot of confusion and upset. Black women are told to love their curls and leave the wigs and weaves – but look what we are up against!
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