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Black women say their natural hair can get them fired. That may change soon in N.C.

Black women say their natural hair can get them fired. That may change soon in N.C.

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DURHAM — Satana Deberry, Durham County's district attorney, heard some advice in the late '90s that she would never forget.

She had been working as a criminal defense attorney in Rockingham County representing mostly young and poor people of color. While defending an individual who was going to face a jury in a serious assault case, a Superior Court clerk pulled Deberry aside in the courtroom during a break.

It was about Deberry's hair, the short afro on her head.

"She said, you know, you have to represent your clients in a certain way," Deberry recalled. "And if you're not, people are gonna, the way you wear your hair is gonna reflect on how people think of your clients."

It's a familiar warning Black women often hear as they pursue a career, she said.

Deberry straightened her hair afterward with relaxers, a lotion commonly containing lye, a highly caustic hydroxide. Two years of salon trips later, she pulled a clump of hair out of her scalp by accident while watching television. That was the last time she put those products on her head.

Now, she is among a number of women at the local and state level pushing for legal protections against hair discrimination in North Carolina.

Durham, where 38% of the population is African American, is among the first cities in the state to prohibit discrimination based on hair style, texture and types historically associated with race. 

Last week, Greensboro passed a similar ordinance protecting hairstyles as well.

"All of the natural hairstyles that our hair can make, it can be [seen as] a statement or it can be used against us," said Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman, one of the ordinance's leading advocates. "So many women make the decision not to wear any of those hairstyles, myself included, because you don't want to be offensive."

Afros, Bantu knots, cornrows, braids, locs, twists, tight coils and curls would be protected under the ordinance.

Deberry said hair and racial discrimination are connected.

"I don't know if there's any Black woman who would tell you that her hair's an accessory," she said. "That she hasn't caught more flak over her hair than almost anything other than her skin color."

The American Bar Association has also reported on several instances of hair discrimination against young men and boys across the country in recent years, mostly arising from policies regulating students' appearance at schools. In January 2020, a 16-year-old was suspended over the length of his dreadlocks, according to the ABA.

Scrutiny at work over hair

Charmayne Little runs a hair salon, Mayne Styles, out of a studio attached to her husband's barber shop in northern Durham.

The 39-year-old has styled hair professionally for over 20 years. When she started out as a cosmetologist, a lot of Black women would ask her to straighten their hair with relaxers.

"People were wanting a certain look, like what they see on TV," said Little, whose braids reach the small of her back.

About 10 years ago, that started to change, she said. Most of her clients now want braids or cuts that show off their natural hair.

She's ecstatic to hear about Durham's plan to pass an anti-discrimination law for hairstyles. As a stylist, she often hears from Black women who worry about facing consequences for how they present themselves at work.

Two months ago, one of her clients, a school teacher in Wilson, told her she had nearly gotten fired after a previous stylist blended too much blonde into her twist braids.

Another client, a nurse at a local hospital, told her she would lose her job if she had too much burgundy in her hair. She wanted a full head of red hair, but out of caution, asked Little to add just a few, inconspicuous streaks.

"I've been to the doctor's office and had a blonde doctor. I've been to the eye doctor and seen a red-haired Caucasian woman. And they still have their job," Little said.

"But my clients, you can only get a little piece, or I have to hide it under here or hide it under there," she said, about adding color. "It's so unfair."

Durham's ordinance does not appear to cover highlights and may not apply if the alleged bias is found to be unconnected to race.

However, Black women are policed more frequently for their hair by employers than non-Black women, according to a study.

About 80% of the Black women surveyed in the study believed they had to change their hair from its natural state in order to fit into their office.

Black women were also one-and-a-half times more likely to be sent home from their workplace because of their hairstyle, the study showed.

Camryn Smith, an activist with the Durham nonprofit Communities in Partnership, believes the common expectation of what a professional woman should look like in America is rooted in European standards of beauty, especially with hair.

"If you're coming from an anti-oppressive, anti-racist perspective, you really need to look at your identity politics, how you view beauty and how you view professionalism and accessibility," Smith said. "And that's all been rooted in whiteness."

Historically, many Black women have felt shame about their hair, she said.

"Because of white supremacy, and how Black women have been demonized," she said. "Our hair has been stated as being anything but beautiful, anything but desirable, and anything but something that people want."

Deberry said the court clerk who had suggested she change her hair was also Black.

"I think she felt like she was giving me good advice," she said.

Freedom to express oneself

For Deberry, like many people, her hairstyle is a window into her personality.

"One of the first things you learn as a Black girl is that your hair, your crown, is an important part of how you present yourself to the world," Deberry said.

She said hair care can absorb an inordinate amount of emotional and psychic time for Black women.

The issue received national attention in October when Hulu released a horror movie, "Bad Hair," about a career-driven Black woman terrorized by a killer weave after her boss encourages her to cover her coils.

"Many of us are spending thousands of dollars, to have, you know, straightened hair or to participate in having a certain aesthetic that is going to get them that next job promotion. It's just too much," said Crystal Richardson, an attorney in the Triangle.

Richardson thinks passing the laws will help raise public awareness.

"It's about being able to have the freedom to choose," she said. "As opposed to just being told you have to look a certain way to fit in."

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