It's 2019, and children are still getting in trouble and even being sent home from school for wearing natural hairstyles featuring their un-chemically-altered texture. According to research from Dove, African-American girls typically receive their first insult revolving around their hair by the age of eight. Meanwhile, Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work.
As a step toward driving actionable change in both the policies and prejudices that lead to hair discrimination against women of all ages, the Dove Self-Esteem Project and the CROWN Coalition (created by Dove in partnership with the National Urban League, Color Of Change, and Western Center on Law and Poverty) teamed up with award-winning writer and producer Shonda Rhimes for an event at the Los Angeles County of Education last week.
Celebrity makeup artist Dre Brown moderated a conversation with Rhimes, Unilever's Esi Eggleston Bracey (who spearheads the CROWN Coalition), Senator Holly J. Mitchell and organizer Janaya 'Future' Khan, along with several students who have faced discrimination themselves. Over the span of an hour, they combed through the topic of hair, specifically African-American hair, and how it has a history of being unfairly policed instead of widely celebrated for its beauty.
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Administrators from schools stretching across the Los Angeles Unified School District showed up along with their students, who wore a myriad of hairstyles from cornrows embellished with gilded jewels, Afro puffs, rainbow colored braids and unbound styles in textures from coils to bone straight strands and loose waves.
"You have this feeling that you're not worthy somehow," Rhimes noted. The legendary producer acknowledged the massive role the media has in inspiring those feelings in young people, and hopes she can play a part in changing that from the inside.
"One of the things that I'm hoping to do is to really try to change what you see on television. I think it’s really dangerous. I make sure that when I'm doing my job, I'm showing women in all different kinds of ways. Olivia Pope had straight hair, she had curly hair, she had braids. Viola Davis took her wig off. The shows that are coming up, you're going to see all different kinds of hair because women need to look like women in real life."
And while Black girls find themselves combating a standard of beauty, which is often seen through Hollywood's lens and traditionally favors an aesthetic that is far from their own, their fight also impacts their access to success.
During the town hall, students and panelists Faith Fennidy, Tyrelle Davis, Mya Cook and Deanna Cook each shared their own experiences facing discrimination in the classroom. While all instances tarnished their self-esteem, others resulted in protests and detention sit-ins. In each scenario, the time that was used to negatively focus on their hair took away from their education.
"We live in a culture that blames Black people and Black children for what happens to us," noted Khan. "No matter what injustice we experience, we must have done something to cause it. And this is something that Black children become aware of as soon as the world becomes aware of them."
So what's the solution? "The shift happens every single time that each and every one of us chooses to say, 'My strength will no longer be determined by how much oppression I can endure,'" she continued. "And for everyone who isn't Black in this room, I'm going to remind you all that we don't, we have never, and we cannot do it alone. We only grow as much as you do with us."
Policy against hair discrimination is also crucial. In June of this year, California became the first state to ban discrimination against natural hair by schools and employers via The CROWN Act. Rhimes brought forth a call to action: "I want to talk to the administrators in the audience," she said. "Especially the people who are from the states that haven't had [The CROWN Act] made a law for you yet. You have the power to change the rules in your school. Get the conversation started and discuss the policies, discuss what's going on in your school boards, stand up for a child at your school. Administrators have an immediate power."
Following the discussion, students delved into a self-esteem workshop meant to further bolster certainty in their being. To help them do so, Rhimes recalled a natural hair moment with her two youngest daughters: "I have a seven-year-old and a six-year-old who have very different curl patterns. My seven year-old, I always say 'she was born bald,' she just got her hair. I have a six-year-old, who has what you'd call 'bouncing and behavin'' hair. My seven-year-old was always feeling bad because she didn't have the ponytail that her sister had. One day, I went online and I found every picture I could of women with Afros. I found all these beautiful pictures and she got excited about it. The next day she said, 'Mommy, I want to wear an Afro to school.'"
The anecdote received a chorus of "ooohs and ahhhs" from the young crowd and also inspired others to tell their stories. One student has felt left out due to not having hair like her peers who aren't bi-racial, while another explained how she developed confidence in her appearance after showing up to school with a short afro after years of only being seen with long braids.
"There are thousands and thousands and thousands of stories like this and they continue to happen every day. We need to change the law," Bracey told Fashionista. "We're in two states. We need to be in 48 states. We need to be federal and you can help make that happen by signing the CROWN Act petition. We're going for a hundred thousand signatures so that we can show it matters. It's not frivolous."