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.

"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.

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."

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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