How you are treated based on your hair is a focal point for discrimination, or the lack thereof, and the appearance and properties of one’s hair has created a divide politically, medically, educationally, and professionally. Shining light on these inequalities is important to implement fundamental changes against these systemic norms that have oppressed individuals, particularly those who identify as Black, in ways that others may not realize.
One example hair discrimination can be found with a popular medical device: the electroencephalogram (EEG). The EEG is responsible for picking up the brain’s electrical activity and is important for detecting cognitive abnormalities, such as seizures. The original EEG was invented and designed in 1924 and, today, has Medusa-like wires attached to sticker electrodes intended to have close contact with your scalp. However, this design poses a challenge for patients with coily or curly hair because the electrodes cannot properly connect to the scalp like they can with fine, straight hair. Even worse, it is even more challenging, and sometimes not possible, to attach EEG electrodes to scalps that have dreadlocks, corn rows, or a weave, who are typically Black patients. This directly correlates to Black patients receiving inadequate and/or inaccurate EEG readings which results in unequal medical care.
So how is this systemic issue being addressed? The first step is to acknowledge that the EEG wasn’t designed with Black hair in mind, and we have to work to change that fact that the Black population is getting sub-par care in this area of medicine. Arnelle Etienne, a young Black engineer, knew that it was time to think of a totally new EEG design. In the midst on pondering the EEG’s design, Etienne had a dream about clips with electrodes on them and envisioned them sitting between and/or underneath corn rows. Her dream quickly became a reality when she took this thought to a 3-D printer and created a prototype of these dreamt-electrodes. They look like a clear plastic dragon fly clip that allows you to slide the wings of the dragon fly under a patient’s corn rows, allowing the electrode to stay firmly on and close to the scalp. After testing this design with Black community members, Etienne’s data shows that the EEG signal was 15 times better with the clip model compared to a standard EEG. Etienne is working to get her model medically approved and into hospitals and clinics around the world.
Another scientist who has stepped to the forefront in combatting medical injustice is Leitsel Jones, who studied biomedicine at UCF. During her time as a student, Jones partnered with Nina Woodley, a hair stylist in Orlando, to help research styles of hair that work with the traditional EEG. Together, they developed a guide of tips and tricks on how to do hairstyles for patients requiring EEGs so that medical professionals can be educated in adapting to these differences, rather than cutting out patients’ hair because of an EEG’s design prejudice. A few hairstyles in the guide include a braid starting at the crown of the head down to the nape of the neck and a bun. They have also included various strategies for electrode-placing techniques for weaves and dreads and are working on a swim cap-like design to increase electrode connection to the scalp. These medically inclusive efforts are essential to making healthcare a more inclusive field, essential to equitable patient care across the globe.
Though efforts are being made in the medical industry to combat prejudice, social stigmas around hair type get in the way of professional development, especially for young Black professionals. Straight, fine hair (commonly referred to as “Becky hair”) has historically been the desired hair type. We have seen progress in modern day society toward embracing natural beauty and hair types, but we are far from having this inclusivity as a fundamental aspect of our large public sectors such as politics and business. Many Black women have lost job opportunities because they didn’t adhere to the hair standards that our society holds, associating that traditionally Black hairstyles such as braids or dreadlocks are less professional. We see the same hair discrimination carry over into the sectors of housing and education. Like healthcare, there are advocates for equal rights and representation in areas of government, business, politics, and education who are speaking out against hair discrimination in these sectors of our world.
Representative Cori Bush is a strong facilitator for the movements against hair discrimination in the United
States. She is a registered nurse, community activist, single mother, and ordained pastor representing the people of Missouri’s First Congressional District and serves on the House Judiciary Committee and House Oversight Committee. In her many trades, Rep. Bush is pushing for federal law against race-based hair discrimination in employment, housing, and education through The Crown Act. When starting her career, she recalls attending professional development workshops that provided information on how to be presentable when applying for jobs, explicitly narrating the idea that hairstyles such as dreadlocks should be avoided so you would not be “seen as a threat”. In her early government career, Rep. Bush felt that when she aligned with the “Becky hair” expectations, she didn’t feel like she was being true to herself. However, when she wore her hair in braids, as it was comfortable and natural to her, she was explicitly told by members in congress that she should wear her hair straight because it made her appear more professional. Dealing with this double-edged sword made prospering in her career more challenging than those of her non-BIPOC colleagues and reinforced the idea that merely existing as a Black individual was unprofessional.
Race-based hair discrimination is extremely prevalent for young Black children and has been recorded as affecting 66% of Black children in schools. Of that 66%, 86% of those children before the age of 12 have been told how they should show up in the world other than how they were born. Black women are reported as being the most educated group of women in our country and we are seeing the number of Black women in congress increase, however we do not see that highlighted in our media or see Black women’s representation replicated in other dominating sectors of our country. Rep. Bush touches on the phenomenon that Black women need to show up in their most professional suit, light jewelry, make-up done, with their hair straight in hopes to be seen as professional, whereas many white men in similar or higher positions are seen as more professional when simply wearing a pair of jeans and a collared shirt. This double standard is necessary to acknowledge and dissect to tear it out from its roots and reinvent systems that have been build upon oppression.
A recent docuseries on Hulu – The Hair Tales – connects the personal tales of phenomenal Black women to broader societal and historic themes, sharing an honest and layered look into the complex culture of Black hair and, ultimately, Black women’s identity, beauty, cultural, and social contributions and humanity. Creator Michaela Angela Davis reinforces the theme that hair is a site for expression, economy, and culture and Black women have been controlled in dominating sectors through this phenomenon. She acknowledges that hair encompasses the tenants of a whole culture and “if you can control her hair, you can control her and the Black community.” The series dives into personal experiences of Black women and their struggles with hair-based discrimination, reminding the viewers that the target for respectability is always shifting and Black women are expected to constantly shift with it.
There are notable steps being taken in medicine, education, policy, and media to highlight the brushed-over areas of discrimination and it is important to incorporate this acknowledgement into other sectors of our country both personally and professionally. Finding ways to uproot this engrained prejudice in your organizations is essential in developing a new lens for professionalism in modern day society.
“What’s worse than heat damage? Hair discrimination.” – NPR It’s Been a Minute Podcast (January 13, 2023).
“Medical devices that have failed the Black community.” – Science VS Podcast (September 23, 2022).