Hairstyles of Black Women: Cases of Discrimination

Mainstream society still falters at the acceptance of natural hair and hairstyles of Black women, which has led to legal action against discrimination.

Photo by Shutterstock

By Sheryl Estrada

Photo by Shutterstock

Photo by Shutterstock

It’s 2015, yet the natural hair and hairstyles of Black women continues to be taboo in mainstream society in the U.S. and abroad. At the workplace, during travel and even at leisure, Black women face an additional layer of discrimination.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA)  

When Malaika Singleton, Ph.D., a neuroscientist employed by the California State Senate at the time, began a 2013 trip to London as a U.S. delegate to the G8 Dementia Summit little did she know her “sisterlocks” hairstyle, a form of dreadlocks, would be an issue.

TSA agents at both the Los Angeles International Airport and the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport grabbed and squeezed her natural hair from top to bottom.

She contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California. In 2014 the ACLU filed an administrative complaint on her behalf to challenge TSA’s discriminatory hair searches. Ironically, in 2012, a similar complaint was also filed on behalf of Novella Coleman, a Black woman and Staff Attorney with the nonprofit organization; she represented Singleton.

The ACLU announced March 26 that an agreement was reached with the TSA. The agency agreed to conduct trainings for TSA agents throughout the country, with special emphasis on hair pat-downs of Black female travelers. TSA will also monitor all the airports “for consistent implementation of TSA and DHS policies and to detect the existence of a racially discriminatory impact.”

“I hope that this agreement and the proposed trainings will lead to a more equitable treatment of all travelers throughout the U.S., regardless of their ethnic or cultural background or how they wear their hair,” Singleton said in a statement.

 Madisons New York Grill and Bar

In Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 19-year-old Lettia McNickle, who has worked as a hostess at a Canadian franchise of Madisons New York Grill and Bar on Drummond Street since October, said she came to work one day in March with a braided hairstyle on the side of her head, and has not received any shifts since.

According to CBCNews, McNickle said her manager reprimanded her in front of fellow employees saying her hairstyle was not acceptable.

“I obviously wanted to know what it was she didn’t like specifically about the hairstyle, so the [next] day I asked her, ‘What is it that’s wrong with my hair?’ And she said, ‘We don’t want that kind of look here at the restaurant,'” McNickle said on CBC Daybreak.

Her boss sent her home. McNickle filed a discrimination complaint against the restaurant with the Quebec Human Rights Commission, through the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a nonprofit also in Quebec.

I think it’s important for businesses to know that it’s important to be aware of the fact that even with a grooming policy or even a policy about appearance, one can still discriminate against minorities or minority women if this policy has a negative effect based on their race or ethnicity,” Fo Niemi of CRARR told DiversityInc.

He said CRARR looked at case precedents from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the U.S., as this is the first case of its kind in Canada.

In a statement, Madisons New York Grill and Bar said the incident did not involve race or discrimination and apologized if the situation caused harm to McNickle or her friends and family. However, it also states, “As in any organization, there is an internal protocol to follow and a dress code to respect to guarantee that our customers’ experience is ideal.”

CRARR stated that they also have yet to see a written standard grooming policy from the restaurant.

The brand vice-president for the Canadian franchises of the Madisons chain, Gilles Pépin, said because business is down McNickle has not been given any shifts, and she is not fired.

Niemi explained that if the Quebec Human Rights Commission concludes discrimination occurred the plaintiff must be compensated, including lost wages and moral damages, within 30 days. “[The fines] are meant to be remedial not punitive,” he said.

If you are a Black woman who wears a natural hairstyle, please feel free to share your experiences in our comments section.  We will be posting a follow-up with our reader’s feedback

 DiversityInc Staff Writer Michael Nam contributed to this article.


Recommended Articles


  • That’s a bunch of baloney!! They knew exactly what they were doing. White Supremacy rears its ugly head all the time to interfere with people’s human rights. Anything black should be tamed down and suppressed. Remember Tasmania! Remember Namibia, Shark island!
    Eugenics at work, baby! Let’s call it what it is.!!!

  • While I’m not a black woman, I can say that I truely love the natural hairstyles. I’m so tired of hearing people say, “not in my “. Get over it and move on. There are larger things in this world that need your attention than someone else’s hair.

  • Hi,

    I am a black woman who wears my hair naturally. I used to wear it cut very close but now I am growing it out. I haven’t had any issues regarding my hair but I do know that this is a real issue. I find it interesting that black women who wear european styled hair and weaves are often complimented but women who wear a more natural hairstyle gets asked so many questions about their hair. I find the fascination interesting and find most people, at least when dealing with me, are respectful.

    Thanks for sharing this. We are discussing discrimination in my Philosophy of Race, Class and Gender and this was right on time!

  • As a black woman that wears my hair in locks, I have had enough hastles at the airport security that I will not have my hair up if I am traveling because once I actually was asked to step aside and ended up spend the next 15-20 minutes taking my hair down. the explaination I received is that there is a possibility that I may have something hidden in my hair…..Really? this has happened to me 3 times because I like to groom my hair when I am traveling and because of the lenght, It usually ends up in a bun….so now I just leave it down just to avoid the hastle.

  • Justasyouare

    I just recently, as of four days ago, experienced discrimination based on my hair style in that I was told, “I couldn’t be a black woman because y’all have to do too much to your hair to look good”. I’ve only known this individual less than two months. It was a side job so I quit but not without informing the individual that her acts were offensive and discriminatory. I also sent it to her District Manager, who is an African American woman. I received an email from the individual excusing me of not addressing the issue earlier and had she known it offended me she would have apologized since she meant no harm.

  • I am going to share this article with my niece who lives in Canada and has a natural, well groomed hairstyle.

  • A.J. Whitman

    Fortunately, my natural hairstyles have not been an issue in my place of employment, but a couple of years ago I was wearing a sew in weave and I went through the X-Ray machine next thing I know, this little Asian TSA lady comes up to me and says she has to pat my hair down. I’m like are you serious. I felt like I was being checked for lice. And in my mind I’m like seriously do I look like I got knives, bombs, and grenades in my hair!? I wish I had had the presence of mind then to contact the ACLU then as it was humiliating. Glad they are receiving the proper training now.

  • Claudette Louard-Clarke

    I am a black director at a large non-profit in Washington, DC. Eight years ago I started to lose my hair and it was recommended that I stop chemical straightening of my hair. I wore braids for a few years and then started wearing my hair in different styles from open coils and curls to pinned into a ponytail. I got some complements from staff while transitioning into fully natural hair. But the thing that surprised me is now years later black females at all levels of the organization are embracing their natural hair. They are unwilling to give in to the pressure to adopt hairstyles that mimic white hair at the cost of damage to our hair and scalp.

    I say give this time and there will be full acceptance of the diversity that exists in our community. People of European descent should not be allowed to determine what is acceptable when it comes to our hair. And where bias is detected fight it like those in this article are doing.

  • Anissa H ancock

    I have been wearing my natural hair since 2009. Although it is not closely cropped, I wear it neatly in its natural curl pattern.

    Every so often, I will use heat to straighten my hair because I enjoy variety.

    I work in the corporate office in Human Resources. No one has ever complained about my hair, but a recent experience was a clear indication of what type of hair is more acceptable to my peers.

    Once day, a white male manager said to me “I really like your hair. I like your hair THAT way.”
    The emphasis on ‘That way’, plus past situations with this manager, was a clear indication that my natural hair is not acceptable to him. It also made me a bit uneasy.

    I still continue to wear my hair both ways – straight and in its natural curl pattern because my hairstyle is not a reflection of my knowledge, skills, or ability. I refuse to change my choice of style because of lack of understanding.

  • I am a professional in Human Resources for an organization in Southwestern Virginia. I have been wearing my natural hair since 2009. Although it is long, I wear it neatly in its natural curl pattern.

    Every so often, I will use heat to straighten my hair because I enjoy variety.

    No one has ever complained about my hair, but a recent experience was a clear indication of what type of hair is more acceptable to my non-minority peers.

    Once day, a white male manager of a different department than mine said to me “I really like your hair. I like your hair THAT way.”

    The emphasis on ‘That way’, plus past situations with this manager, was a clear indication that my natural hair is not acceptable to him. It also made me a bit uneasy.

    I still continue to wear my hair both ways – straight and in its natural curl pattern because my hairstyle is not a reflection of my knowledge, skills, or ability. I refuse to change my choice of style because of lack of understanding and ignorance.

  • Jackie Jackson

    I’ve been wearing natural hair styles for at least 15 years. White women in the workplace have said, as recent as yesterday, that I have “fun” hair. What does that mean? Does that mean that I’m not taken seriously? Has my hair been the reason for my inability to secure a sponsor, break through the glass ceiling?

    • I am assuming the comment was made without malice. If I am correct, “Fun hair” simply means that you wear your hair in playful styles that perhaps expresses your personality, is maybe easy to wear without a lot of work. I could be wrong, but generally “fun” is not meant to mean derogatory or bad.

  • A funny thing….when I straighten my hair out …my husband and family…though I am sure they have no idea that they do it…inadvertently say, I look good, pretty, younger, normal..etc, etc etc. . Why is that? Hmmmm…I suspect “natural hair” is not considered sexy, well groomed, mature or presentable for business. Hmmm..
    Doing/being natural is so freeing. God made each just the way he intended! :)

  • I am getting ready to get sisterlocks and saw this article. I had not considered my hair in my liberal workplace until I was told this week that my puff made me look like an Egyptian queen ruling over my subjects. I am a little more on high alert as a result of all of these situations.

  • Charity Dell

    I’m not quite sure why dreadlocks would be seen as some kind of “security threat.” Dreadlock hairstyles certainly do not lend themselves to concealment of weapons, hand grenades or even the infamous C4 plastic explosive, so why the obsession about dreadlocks on a TSA worker? The agent who squeezed the TSA worker’s hair “from top-to-bottom” probably had some kind of weird, prurient, voyeuristic “I-want-to-touch-African-hair-and-play-with-it” fetish.

    The braided hair story is even WEIRDER–braiding clearly “constrains” any texture of hair and locks the hair down to the scalp, as it were–and most restaurants want hair to be restrained for hygienic reasons. Again, why was this hairstyle seen as some kind of undesired “look”, especially for a grill and bar? What grill-and-bar patrons even CARE about a worker’s braided hairstyle? Most people in cosmopolitan Montreal are accustomed to all kinds of African hair and hairstyles, since Francophone Africans and Francophone Caribbeans make up a good percentage of the population. What if a Euro-canadian
    or Euro-Australian or European waitress wore braids on the side of her head? Would that be a problem, too? Racism is one of the DUMBEST things any human ever invented!

  • As a black woman who was relocated with her company to the south, there is noticeable difference in the way we are looked at regarding our hair. I came here with my hair blown out straight looking like a woman of mixed ethnicity. When it got hot I went to my natural coiled hair and the looks I got in the office even from another african american were too much. I was told by him several time he didn’t like my hair that the straight look was better here. I asked what he neant “here” and he just repeated he liked my straight hair. I had one person go “oh can I touch that, I’ve never touched natural hair before.: My answer of course “no, you may not.” No one openly said anything else but when I went back to my straight hair I got praises from everyone about how beautiful it was and it was the same style as before. I felt as long as I looked as if I assimilated it was ok especially because I was lighter skinned but as soon as I went to my natural hair I somehow was a different person.

  • As far as TSA is concerned…ugh! About two years ago I got stopped because they said I had oil on my hands. I was sent through the airport with no shoes on and all my stuff falling out of my bag. I had a lace wig on and was told I needed to take it off. I complained so much and told them I was going to file a formal complaint and they patteed it down but didn’t make me take it off. It was humiliating, because my natural hair was braided and in a cap under the wig but I put it behind me. I should have complained I guess.

  • I was told today that my cornrows, just installed yesterday were inappropriate for my law office. I specifically asked, “Is it my cornrows” and the boss said yes.

  • Nice post for black colored women. Black colored women can get suggestion to make hairstyles from this site. thanks for sharing.

  • A co-worker of mine, the only black woman in my office of 100+ individuals, told me that woman are always making stupid comments about her hair, from “Is that your real hair” to “I don’t like that look.” One woman started stroking her braids, and became angry when asked to stop. She is singled out often. Sadly she is looking for employment elsewhere.

  • I work at Kay Jewelers. However I am proud to be a natural haired woman. After being employed for about 3 months , my manager and I were discussing hair. I mentioned I wanted to get my hair colored (not my whole head , like an ombré). It was a reddish tone. She says to me, and I quote,”You can color it if you’re going to where it [straight] all the time. It’s not professional if you wear it in those lil twists you like.” I wasnt so shocked that she actually said it , it’s how she said it. As if my hair , in those twisted curls I like was a huge problem. The more people I tell , the more I am encouraged to make a complaint with the company. It’s not fair.

  • My daughter was called into the office where her boss asked her if she was trying to make a “fashion statement.” When she asked for clarification he referred to her hairstyle. When she started the job last August she was wearing a straightened style. It became too time consuming every morning, so she started wearing it in her naturally curly style. She is feeling a bit uncomfortable about today’s discussion. She is biracial and has beautiful curly hair that is probably the envy of either race! She works in a doctor’s office and is sometimes “up front.” This is a practically all white town in Tennessee. I wonder if she should bring up the issue of discrimination.

  • I worked for agency for about a year and half. I got an assignment and was asked to come into the office for a job discription, when I got there I was asked to tone down my curly kinky afro I sported. I was asked, do you have a headband? Do you have a hat that you can wear. I explained that I was wearing my hair natural so when I got home I was called and told the shift I wanted, they no longer needed me, I knew it was about my hair so I asked for the 3rd shift and went on the interview, I cut my hair down and put on a straight wig and still haven’t been called for the job. None of this is new to me because I amalways getting disciminated against. I also hate my name because of this.

  • WOW!… I just happened to come across this article and realized that TOO MANY black women share MY story. This insult occurred to me March/2016. So I am shocked to see that a year has passed with minimal to no change… I was traveling to a family funeral from Logan Airport in Boston. Hair freshly done. Afro popping! :) … So, we are waiting to go through TSA security through and I realized that I still had around my neck a new pair of Bluetooth headphones ( 1st time wearing, so remembering the headphones are around my neck is not routine at this time) . I said as I stand in the X-ray booth ” OMG! I forgot I had these around my neck!” The female screening officer tells me I had to get out of line & go through again. WHAAAT?!? Ok. I complied with the command. As I turn around in the X-ray booth, a gentleman behind me says, “Miss, just place it in a bucket before mine & I will hand it to you”… Well that didn’t sit well with her. When I came through again and AFTER I went through the X-ray and the screening gestures/movements again… The female agency puts on FRESH GLOVES and screams… MISS DONT TOUCH ANYTHING! Huh???!!! What am I Elastical Girl? What could I’ve touched? Then she’s YELLING COMMANDS like I instantaneously became deaf & blind. So I’m now confused & saying to myself to let this clown finish cause now my child is standing alone waiting for me & this fool can make me miss my flight hence miss my family funeral. She proceeds to “pat me down” like I’m ready for lock-up then proceeds to finger through my hair and comments, and I quote ” Wow! You have a lot of hair” Then says…wait for it…..” Is this a weave?!”….The ONLY reason I didn’t protest or tell this clown how I felt, I knew it could’ve lead to a situation where I would’ve been labeled as a combative black woman, a threat & been prohibited to travel during an already sensitive time…. As I’m telling my story I am getting upset remembering this ordeal…There’s more but my fingers are already fatigued. SMH!:(

  • britney Mckenzie

    I recently decided to take on a look i have never tried before. A curly/coil big hair look. I got Crochet braids in the form of a big coil curl look. Being the only black woman on my team and the only black woman in my company I got a few harsh comments when clocking in “What happened to your hair?” co worker asked , another co worker answered ” She got electrocuted by a fork in a toaster”. Completely uncalled for. I am always used to weaves and braids or putting my natural hair in a bun after a blow out. I never embraced my culture this much in my entire life. And the minute I do try to feel and express my pride I am shunned or talked down upon. Right now today this has happened. Later on I am going to have a chat with my boss about the comments that made me feel uncomfortable. I wonder what they would say if I started wearing a Hijab. Hmmph!

« Previous Article     Next Article »