Study: The Social Psychology Behind White Biases Against Black Natural Hair

White women “had the strongest explicit attitudes that were negative. The significant bias is a challenge for Black women that has to be acknowledged," Alexis McGill Johnson told DiversityInc.

“The ‘Good Hair’ Study: Explicit And Implicit Attitudes Toward Black Women’s Hair,” released last week, reveals that even though more Black women are embracing natural hairstyles, biases toward natural hair continue to exist — even within the Black community.

Alexis McGill Johnson

Alexis McGill Johnson is the co-founder and executive director of Perception Institute, which is comprised of strategies and researchers in the field of social psychology. Johnson, who earned a an undergraduate degree infrom Princeton University, and a graduate from Yale University, sets policy and research priorities for the institute.

She explained to DiversityInc how research on the perceptions of former President Barack Obama during his campaign for the presidency led to research on natural hair biases.

“We came together in 2008 when we were concerned about then-candidate [Barack] Obama, and the level of racial anxiety that seemed to be permeating the campaign,” Johnson said.

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In an emotional farewell address, Obama discussed American values and race in the U.S., and gave a tribute to his wife and daughters.

“And eight years later, another election cycle, a lot of racial anxiety, and essentially we are trying to continue that conversation. But do it in a more applied way.”

Johnson said that in order to continue a conversation on implicit bias (the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner) and explicit bias (the attitudes and beliefs we have about a person or group on a conscious level), the group chose to examine image industries.

“One of the areas we really hadn’t connected to but seemed to govern so much of all of how we see each other is the beauty industry and the image industry, broadly,” Johnson said. “And that was one of the factors for us launching the study.”

In April 2016 SheaMoisture brand launched the provocative “Break the Walls” campaign challenging the beauty and retail industries to address the aisle “segregation” of hair products by race.

Johnson said “The ‘Good Hair’ Study,” which was influenced by the campaign, focused on trying to figure out how to break down mental walls in regard to hair biases.

“You can’t really break your mental walls unless you document that the bias actually exists,” she said.

The HairIAT

Beginning in August, the study examined attitudes toward Black women’s hair by using the first Hair Implicit Association Test (HairIAT) created by the institute. It measures implicit bias against textured hair and also includes an online survey to gauge explicit attitudes about how natural textured hair is perceived.

White women “had the strongest explicit attitudes that were negative. The significant bias is a challenge for Black women that has to be acknowledged."

From “The ‘Good Hair’ Study”

“We had a national sample that we asked to take the HairIAT,” said Johnson. “And we also had a sample from an online hair community. Part of that was making sure that we were able to oversample people who had natural hair.”

The study included 4,163 participants: a national sample of 3,475 men and women, and a sample of 688 “naturalista” women from an online natural hair community. The results of the HairIAT showed:

  • The majority of participants — regardless of race — show implicit bias against Black women’s textured hair.
  • Black women who are part of an online natural hair community are more likely to show a preference for Black women’s textured hair.
  • White women in the natural hair community are three times more likely to be neutral than white women in the national sample, though the majority still show preference for smooth hair.

Johnson said it was “very concerning” that white women had the strongest implicit attitudes but that it was what “we kind of expected.”

She added that white women “also had the strongest explicit attitudes that were negative. And, to the extent that they are governing so much of the editorial, the casting decisions. They’re in positions that are really driving the look and feel of America. The significant bias is a challenge for Black women that has to be acknowledged.”

Johnson continued, “I also see particularly in the business context, the role that this plays among HR professionals to the extent that your hair can trigger an unconscious bias or some kind of assumption.

“And definitely, we specifically asked people to rate hairstyles not just based on beauty and attractiveness, but also to the degree they felt the hairstyle was professional. And the fact that people felt that many of the natural styles were not professional, I thought was very telling as well.”

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Federal Court Rules It’s OK for Employers to Prohibit Dreadlocks

“How can the court or an employer feel they have a right to strip us of this option to wear whatever hairstyle we chose?” said Lissiah Taylor Hundley.

In September, in a 3-0 decision, the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Catastrophe Management Solutions’, an insurance claims processing company in Alabama, decision not to hire Chastity Jones, a Black woman, because she has dreadlocks. A white hiring manager told Jones she could have the job if she changed her hairstyle. The court asserted that it’s legal for companies to refuse employment based on hairstyles.

“I remember when that case first came out, and we were in the process of designing our study, I said, ‘Wow I wish we had this study for [Jones] to use,’” said Johnson.

Using the “Good Hair” Survey, researchers also found:

  • White women, on average, show explicit bias toward Black women’s textured hair. They rate it as less beautiful, less sexy/attractive, and less professional than smooth hair.
  • Black women in the natural hair community have significantly more positive attitudes toward textured hair than other women, including Black women in the national sample.
  • Black women perceive a level of social stigma against textured hair, and this perception is substantiated by white women’s devaluation of natural hairstyles.

The Influence of Millennials

Millennials came across as more accepting of natural hair.

“In the naturalista sample, which skewed younger, we expected we would see explicit attitudes that were positive,” Johnson said. “But, we expected to see perhaps a little bit of implicit bias.

“And that is the model of how we try to examine bias in general. Most Americans can have very strong racial equality views, and yet still hold these implicit biases. That’s kind of how we balance them out.”

However, she said, “With the millennial community, what we saw is they had those strong, positive explicit attitudes, and strong positive implicit attitudes. Or they were neutral.”

What researchers found is that millennials who are a part of the “naturalista” hair community are consistently exposed to affirming images and celebrating natural hair in a way that helped them reduced their biases.

The positive perceptions of Black naturalistas who are millennials “also helped white millennials reduced their biases,” Johnson said.

“Millennials in general are kind of leading the conversation through their choices. But they’re also creating communities to affirm themselves and their values. And I think that was really the biggest finding.”

Johnson also noted that implicit biases are reinforced by societal structures.

“I think one of the really important things to say about this study, but the science in general, is that implicit biases are not like individual DNA tests,” Johnson explained.

“It’s not like you and I have a bias that we self-created. The field is social psychology because it is how the structures in society reinforce associations and repeat them.

“So because the media world and the beauty world or Hollywood continue to create these associations in our brain, our biases are a reflection of those social biases.”

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19 comments


  • I took the test and believe that it is faultily-constructed. I had trouble with a couple of the images they used showing African-Americans for whom we had to choose between “smooth” and “textured” hair, in that the styles shown appeared borderline between the two. For those, it took longer for me to make a selection. The premise of the study is that — if you hesitate — it’s evidence that you are struggling against a pre-existing prejudice. But, to me, on those particular images, I was hesitating — not because I was having a problem associating textured hair with positive concepts — but because I was having trouble figuring out if it was “textured” or “smooth.”

  • What this natural hair study proves is what Black women knew for centuries: White women are more RACIST than the children they raise to be equally racist like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

    Having worn my hair in a short natural style (more on than off) since the afro became popular in the late 1960’s, white women prefer the black Uncle Tom’s who FLATTER them by STRAIGHTENING, and even worse, dyeing their hair BLOND! The message that these Black betrayers to their natural hair color (and texture) that they signal to racist, egotistic white women is: I’m imitating YOU because I want TO BE YOU, and I’m NO THREAT to your racist, white supremacist agenda.

    When I’m desperate for a job, I know that within the upper echelons of the legal profession and corporate AmeriKKKa, which are very racist, and not only about hair texture, I have to straighten my hair for the interviewing process.

    On the other hand, as a middle class, college-educated African American, I’m guilty of some bias too against what I call “deadlocks” on women, and especially men. Even the most well-kept ones are ugly and unattractive because I believe a certain amount of psychosis is involved in any hair-twisting tick (white women who constantly twirl the ends of their hair are equally psychotic).

    The above picture of the black woman with the natural hair is TOO DRAMATIC and SEVERE in a business context, but if she were playing “Topsy” or “Buckwheat” in a play, it’s perfect. Having TOO MUCH uncontrolled hair like hers, deadlocks or any straight or natural hair that reaches into the stratosphere or way down near your butt is TOO EXTREME! Hair in a business setting should not be a SHOCK TO THE VISUAL SENSES that would elicit a WTF is THAT on your head, jaw-dropping reaction.

    We need to evolve to accept a well-groomed, natural hairstyle like CNN’ s Cornell Belcher’s, but not like the uncombed Cornell West’s or Questlove’s. When Black women wear their natural hair like the lovely actress Lupita N’yongo, mean-spirited, ignorant, uncouth, and politically incorrect white women, black men and women derisively call them “dykes”, “bull-daggers”, and lesbians. God created our hair texture and He doesn’t make mistakes–we should be able to embrace it, but white supremacist society won’t allow us to love our own hair (or even our own African culture without severe financial consequences). Many blacks like Condoleeza Rice, the O’Bamas, Clarence ThomAss, Oprah, and Vernon Jordan are also colored white supremacists who uphold the racist status quo by willingly acquiescing to these “beauty” standards. If Michelle O’Bama chose to wear her natural hair like Lupita’s, these white racists in AmeriKKKa would protest and threaten to impeach Barack until he forced his wife to confirm. Black women straightening their hair is all about CONTROL and CONFORMING to RACIST WHITE WOMEN’S beauty standards. White men since before Presidents Washington and Jefferson have proven for centuries that they LOVE nappy-haired Black women–there weren’t too many hot-ironed straightening combs in slave ships or shacks.

    Racist white women who are now hypocritically protestingb (against Trump) and pretending to be paragons of virtue need to crawl out of their cavewoman mentality, look into a mirror, and they will see the male versions of themselves in Hitler, David DuKKKe, Trump, Bannon, and Sessions. White female hypocrites–STRAIGHTEN OUT your own narrow, racist minds, and you’ll be less judgmental about Black women’s natural hairstyles.

    • You are engaging in the same, prejudicial, stereotyping you purport to deplore.

    • Charity Dell

      ZAZIJAMS–

      Many Black women–like many OTHER women–straighten their hair for reasons besides low self-esteem or “wanting to be white.”

      1. The main reason women of any ethnic group straighten their hair has to do with EASE OF MANAGEMENT.
      African hair–like its counterparts among Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, Middle Easterners, and Europeans–comes in a
      VARIETY OF TEXTURES and VARIETY OF LENGTHS. Not all African-Americans have short hair, and many of us have
      hair textures that will not successfully support a strong Afro. My own African hair is a soft wiry-nap that simply “falls”
      and is not stiff enough to make a decent Afro. Straightening allows me to “keep the hair together” without the excessive
      tangling and matting that it naturally does. It is also naturally longer in the back and will literally “blow in the wind”.

      2. Straightening can be accomplished WITHOUT harsh chemicals and WITHOUT hot combs heated beyond 450 degrees!
      It is NOT necessary to get the hair “bone straight” and I know people who use kiddie relaxers, leaving them on only
      one-third or one-half of the “recommended time.” Again, the goal is simply “manageability”, rather than “straight-as-a-stick”
      hair.

      3. Dreadlocks can also be modified and worked into very artistic hairstyles. Again, these are usually done at professional
      hair care salons and I have seen many cute, creative, regal and very masculine styles on men that worked well with professional braiding and twists.

      4. Twists and braiding are other time-honored African styles that are natural, and can be worn to great advantage. This is
      especially good when hair becomes thinned out due to the AGING PROCESS, REACTION TO MEDICAL TREATMENT,
      any other reason hair was damaged. Many older African-American women simply cannot support Afros or other styles
      without help from weaves, dreadlocks, hairpieces or wigs.
      attire.

      • YES SOME STRAIGHTEN THEIR FOR MANAGEABILITY BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN THERE IS STILL NOT A STIGMA AGAINST OUR NATURAL CURLS AND THERE ARE OTHER WAYS TO GET MANAGEABLE HAIR WITH OUT SLAP ACID INTO IT

        • KYLA–I agree; the “stigma” was invented during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by the
          five colonial powers that conquered and subjugated the New World continents and the
          Caribbean. Anything African was seen to be primitive, bad, backward, etc.

          However the answer to all this is really very simple:

          WE REJECT THE “STIGMA” AND WE REJECT THE REJECTION OF OUR
          AFRICAN HAIR! PERIOD.

          And we teach our own offspring–and everyone else–that African hair is
          simply GOD-CREATED HAIR. PERIOD.

          And we reserve the right to wear our hair in ANY hairstyle we wish, just
          like ALL women on the planet wear their hair in ANY style THEY wish.

          And that is our simple MANIFESTO OF AFRICAN HAIR–
          GOD MADE IT*, SO IT IS GOOD! PERIOD.

          *Those who have a problem with the DNA of African hair need to
          contact YAHWEH ELOHIM and discuss their issues with the
          Triune Godhead.

  • This reminds me of my senior thesis at Johns Hopkins University, class of 1978. I did a similar study with minority men only, both students and community members. They were shown pictures of women and asked to rate them on attractiveness. The variables were skin color, light or dark, and hair texture, natural or straight. (light -straight or natural and dark -straight or natural)
    My hypothesis was that those with greater self esteem would prefer those that looked like themselves.

    The subjects were given a self-esteem rating test first and then asked to rate the women on attractiveness.
    The black men scoring the lowest on self-esteem always preferred the light-straight haired women and those with the highest self esteem preferred the dark-natural look.

    This was my original hypothesis and it proved true.Self esteem is a powerful thing and clearly influences one’s preferences.

    • I would agree that self-esteem plays a big role for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. It’s much harder to be respectful of others when you have low self-respect, and much easier to find people, situations, things, etc., unattractive if you feel unattractive yourself. But even if you have low self-esteem – something I struggle with – you can still find beauty around you, and you can still be respectful to others. It’s personal discipline as well as moral upbringing. If you’re lacking the latter, you still are responsible for the former.

    • Vanessa C. That is certainly an interesting study. I am a Psychology major minoring in Sociology, and would be interested in knowing about the self esteem rating test. Is it something that was previously designed, or did you develop it? How did you correlate a high self esteem scoring to preference to a dark natural look?

      • Source: Ryden, M. B. 1978. An adult version of the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory: Test-retest reliability and social desirability. Psychological Reports 43:1189-1190. Copyright © 1978 Muriel Ryden. Reproduced with permission of the author. Used by permission. (Dr. Ryden’s scale is a version of a scale developed by Dr. Stanley Coopersmith to measure self-esteem in children. Dr. Ryden’s version is modified to be used with adults.)
        I found that both young and old men that liked themselves/higher self esteem ratings, gave women with dark and natural hair higher attractiveness ratings than the men scoring lower in self esteem.

  • Charity Dell

    This study simply proves that Black women or ANY women with curly, kinky, frizzy, nappy, krinkly or super-wavy hair are
    STILL being pressured to look like “Euro-Barbie” dolls. Women are punished for not having straight hair, and punished for having grey hair. No female today seeking employment in most workpplaces should expose–GASP–GREY hair. However,
    most women with less-than-straight hair can work in education, the non-profit sectors and the health care industries.
    I have also seen Black women with Afro and semi-Afro hairstyles working in banks and offices. Sometimes the Afro is
    cleverly combined with beautiful braiding or artistic twists.

    Most women with Afro hairstyles have less bouffant looks than the model pictured; most professionals with dreadlocks
    keep them impeccably neat, regardless of length. I have observed many Black teachers–male and female–with dread
    styles of various kinds. These are usually done in professional salons, and many dreads are also worked into fancy
    styles that wear well in a workplace setting.

    Most female media figures are being forced to not only possess hair like Barbie, but all MUST have Barbie’s slim,
    ectomorphic frame. You rarely see normal-sized female figures on television news or network news shows. These
    people all feel the need to wear tight, short sheaths that make them look like poorly-clothed versions of 1966-Barbie Dolls. Far too many of them feel compelled to bleach their hair into some straw-shade of blonde–when their own auburn, chestnut and brunette locks would be more flattering. Now we’re bombarded with Caricature Barbies–thousands of
    women masquerading as Barbie, dressing like Barbie and coloring their hair like Malibu Barbie.

    This culture and the work world need to stop worshiping Malibu Barbie–we even have Middle-Aged Malibu Barbie at the White House:
    THE KELLY ANN CON-JOB BARBIE.

  • I’ve been wearing my locks for 17 years and have worked for a financial services company all those 17 years. When I interviewed for the job, I had straight hair. Six months after I was hired, I decided to start locking my hair. It took many people by surprise (especially my Latina supervisor). However, I never made my hair the issue – I made my work performance the issue. I have a strong sense of self and exhibited that demeanor in the workplace. My co-workers (White and Black) were curious but no one questioned or confronted me about my hair. I love my locks and notice that some White folks are trying (in vain) to lock their European hair in an extremely poor attempt at imitating the true beauty and versatility of African American hair.

    • Charity Dell

      EMM–So glad you don’t want to look like:

      THE KELLY ANN CON-JOB BLEACHED-BLONDE MALIBU BARBIE! ROTFLOL :-)

  • I find this whole hair bias so strange. I struggle to understand how anyone can be offended by another’s hair. I have thin straight just lay there hair, but dream of big crazy curly out to there hair.

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