Unheard Voices

I’m Not My Hair: The Criminalization of Black Hair

Key Observations

– Stories of Black students being forced to cut their natural hair has rekindled the debate on what is considered professional.

– Black people face discrimination in school, the workplace and society for their hairstyles.

– To be truly inclusive, policies that target specific hairstyles should be prohibited.


In the age of Black Lives Matter and pledges from numerous organizations to foster an atmosphere of inclusion, support to make Black hair acceptable in the workplace, school and other arenas that are traditionally deemed “professional” continues to grow.

However, Black people are still profiled and punished for their natural hairstyles. The discussion “I Am Not My Hair: The Criminalization of Black Hair,” which was part of the SOPA Research Forum Series, featured panelists who have all experienced discrimination for their natural hair throughout their lives, whether they were called into the principal’s office for the tint of their hair color or endured insensitive comments and views about their hairstyle choices at work.

Panelists included:

Dr. Robin Jackson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Justice Studies at Prairie View A&M University

Dr. Jasmine Drake, Associate Professor at the Barbara Jordan – Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, Texas Forensic Science Commissioner, Center for Justice Research Fellow

Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois, Doctoral Candidate in the Administration of Justice Department at Texas Southern University; Graduate Research Fellow at CJR

Denise Brown, Second Year Doctoral Student in the Administration of Justice Department at Texas Southern University;Graduate Research Fellow at CJR

Elycia Daniel, Doctoral Student in the Administration of Justice Department at Texas Southern University, Instructor at Clark Atlanta University

Melissa Kwende – Doctoral Candidate in the Administration of Justice Department at Texas Southern University

Angelica Olunkwa – Former Undergraduate Research Fellow at CJR, a recent graduate of TSU in the Administration of Justice department

Demeka Simmons – Principal at Marlon Middle School in Liberty-Eylau ISD, Doctoral Candidate in the Administration of Justice Department at TSU

Panelists also discussed racial and ethnic disparities in school disciplinary policies.  Despite the prevailing view that Black people should not be overpoliced in every aspect of their lives, research shows Black students are disciplined at a rate four times higher than other racial or ethnic groups, and that 70 percent of all suspension disciplines are discretionary. There are numerous news stories of Black students being punished for reasons that are completely independent of their academic performance or behavior.

To change the culture of hair discrimination, the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair Act, or CROWN Act, has been proposed as a bill in U.S. Congress and would prohibit discrimination of hairstlyes in jobs, federally assisted programs, housing programs, and public accommodations. Similar proposals are being made at the state and local levels, as well as schools and offices.

“The public school standpoint is we have to do a lot of professional development on cultural responsiveness,” said Simmons, who noted that there is a shortage of Black teachers in America, which means numerous teachers are unaware of how Black hair is maintained. “We have to have training just to let them know what they consider easy is not really easy (for everyone).”

The lack of cultural awareness in training at schools has allowed educators to make assumptions about Black hair and then dole out punishments from those assumptions. Brown shared an experience where she was accused of having dyed red hair in school, which was not the case.

“Red is a natural hair color but you’re calling me into the office because I’m an African American female and I have a tint to my hair,” said Brown. “You’re not being judged for your performance and education, you’re being judged for your natural hair, that grows out of your head, that you have no control over.”

To end discriminatory practices against Black students for their hair, CJR recommends enacting a moratorium on discretionary suspensions in the study “Penalizing Black Hair in the Name of Academic Success in Undeniably Racist, Unfounded, and Against the Law,” published by the Brookings Institute. Other recommendations include building an infrastructure to collect and analyze schools’ discipline data; utilize focus groups; form a community task force; and implement cultural awareness training.

The discussion on Black hair included different views of how Black people should view their own hair, and how to communicate positive views on natural Black hair. Olunkwa shared a story of wanting to dye her hair red and was warned by an aunt that it may not be professional for a career as an attorney.

“And I was like why not?” said Olunkwa. “I think that’s really important, how we speak about ourselves, how we speak about those who are around us.”

Dr. Jackson said it is important for Black parents to let their children know their natural hair is normal and should not be punished for wearing it.

“We can’t make other folks accept our hair if we don’t accept it ourselves,” Dr. Jackson added.

Ms. Kwende agreed with her co-panelists’ views but stated that it was just as important for the Black community and society to accept, and even encourage the different hairstyles Black girls chose.

“In my opinion, I love my natural hair and I think we should be proud of it, but it’s also okay to want to relax your hair.”