Hair means freedom: How a new Charlotte law would empower people with natural hair

·9 min read

Quin Williams’ hair has had many lives.

Williams has shaved her head. She’s rocked an afro. She’s had cornrows. She’s gotten a relaxer. And then she’s shaved her head — again.

She chopped off her 16-year-old dreadlocks last Thanksgiving, and now she’s back to a natural afro. She’s never felt more Black, and Williams has never felt more herself.

“Catch these naps, and deal with it,” she said, referring to how other people might perceive her hair. “That’s not my problem.”

But it was a problem for the Charlotte native when she went into a job interview at a Dilworth pet store about five years ago, and she was questioned about her hair.

At the time, she had tied up her locs into bantu knots, so they weren’t so obvious. Williams was almost certain she was going to get the job — until the manager asked her if her hair was real.

“I paused for a second and kept my composure. As Black people, we are taught to keep composure especially in front of white people when they disrespect us,” she said. “I started sweating. I got anxious because it pissed me off.”

Williams ended up getting the job, but the interaction soured her time with the store and she didn’t stay for long. It wasn’t the first time she felt uncomfortable in a work environment because of other people’s judgment about her hair.

Charlotteans with natural hair may soon be protected from that discrimination.

The Charlotte City Council is set to vote Aug. 9 on expanding a local nondiscrimination ordinance, which will likely include legal protections for people who wear natural hairstyles, like afros and dreadlocks. Proposals to amend the local law would also prohibit discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.

North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill in March called the CROWN Act that would provide statewide protections for hair of all textures and styles. It’s making its way through the General Assembly now.

The last time city leaders tried to extend nondiscrimination policy — by prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in 2016 — state legislators passed a law invalidating the added protections. The political debate over nondiscrimination in public places devolved into an argument over bathrooms, with North Carolina’s House Bill 2 deemed a “bathroom bill” designed to prevent transgender people from using a restroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

The infamous HB2, later repealed and replaced with a similar law called HB142, barred North Carolina cities from passing their own protective policies. But that provision expired in December, and since, cities across the state have adopted new nondiscrimination laws.

“Charlotte has been so behind on so many things,” Williams said. “I’m a great-aunt. This gives me peace because my nephews and nieces shouldn’t have to feel as tired as I feel.”

To Williams, this would be a step closer to freedom.

History of natural hair

It is impossible to separate the history of Black people in America from anti-Black hair sentiment.

Since enslaved women who were forced to work in fields tied their hair up 400 years ago, Black people’s bodies have been policed — including their hair. Black women, especially, have been told throughout history that their hair is “nappy” and have been pressured to straighten or “tame” it.

Natural hair gained popularity during the 1960s, when activists encouraged Black people to embrace their natural locks and argued that they didn’t need to conform to white standards of beauty. Wearing an afro became a declaration of solidarity within the Black community, especially among activists, in the 1970s, and in recent years, the natural hair movement has gained momentum. For many, it’s seen as self-expression, a way to embrace their natural beauty and Blackness, a natural right to wear their hair the way it grows.

But that right hasn’t always been protected.

For more than 40 years, Black workers have filed lawsuits alleging discrimination against their natural hair in the workplace.

“Most of us grow up having our natural hair shamed,” Eternity Philops said. “It’s nappy, it’s a bad thing because it’s unkempt and unruly.

“But the attitude toward natural hair being unkempt and unruly is the same attitude as Black people being unkempt and unruly.”

Philops, who identifies as nonbinary and uses both female and non-gender specific pronouns, has worn their hair in dreadlocks for more than a decade. Growing up, they had their hair pressed and permed. In their mid-20s, Philops got Senegalese twists, a twisted hairstyle that looks similar to dreadlocks. But after, they got a perm again.

As the chemicals soaked into their scalp, Philops said they felt in their soul that it wasn’t right.

“I felt so bad for even going back that route. I decided to never do it again,” they said. “I cut out all my perm and started locs with an inch and a half of my natural hair. I haven’t looked back since.”

Philops is a yoga wellness educator and describes their work environment as a “Black bubble” where natural hair is widely accepted. But understands those in a corporate setting might face different circumstances.

“For Black women, femme-presenting and those assigned female at birth, the ability to feel and be natural is such a huge thing,” they said. “When I started my locs, I felt like I was my more natural self. That is such a freeing feeling. It is so liberating and powerful — not just for Black women, for (anyone) Black to really embrace their natural hair.”

The politics of hair

When Braxton Winston ran for Charlotte City Council, his long dreadlocks were a point of conversation. He knew they would be.

“I haven’t had a close fade since 1996,” he said. “And I will tell you: At every stage of my life when I’ve looked into taking a different step, I’ve been told each time that my hair would be something that impedes me, something I’d have to change.

“I’ve never quite understood that.”

Growing up in Crown Heights, a neighborhood in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, Winston said he was exposed to many cultures and struggles and beliefs, and his parents encouraged that.

Going to a barber shop every two weeks and spending hours there just didn’t feel natural to him. He wasn’t doing it for himself, Winston said — he was doing it for other people. So he stopped.

When he went from a New York City public school to a New England boarding school and was told he would have to cut his hair, he just didn’t get it. He had 100s on all his report cards, he aced standardized tests, and he was involved in extracurriculars, including two sports — so why did his appearance matter?

“It’s always been confusing to me why I would have to change my body to acquiesce to someone else’s comfort,” he said. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Why would I have to do that?’”

When he was elected in 2017, even people that seemed to back Winston politically told him he’d need to “do something” with his hair. But it was never a choice for him.

“It’s just who I am,” he said. “When you look at the government and don’t see anyone with locs, although everybody’s hair grows this way naturally, it’s a claustrophobic feeling.”

Still, both Philops and Winston acknowledged that Black men do have more freedom to embrace their natural hair. Black women, they said, are often held to a different standard.

That’s something Savina Woods challenges every day at work. Making all women feel beautiful is her specialty.

‘You deserve to feel beautiful’

A young Woods would sit between her grandmothers’ knees on the floor, braiding her dolls’ hair while her grandmother worked weathered hands through her hair.

Woods has known since then she wanted to be a hairstylist, she said.

She wears dreadlocks, a decision she made after being in the Marine Corps for 13 years. She said the mandates on hair were stifling, especially for Black women. Though she didn’t do hair professionally then, women came to her in the dorms and asked her to work her magic. She achieved her dream of becoming a hairstylist five years ago.

Woods describes herself as a “multicultural hair stylist” — she works with people of all backgrounds, with hair of all different styles and textures. She doesn’t just style and cut hair, though — Woods educates. She teaches women how to care for their hair themselves, through proper techniques and products.

Demand is high — evidenced by a months-long waiting list for her work.

She hears many stories from clients who work in corporate settings.

“My supervisor told me I should straighten my hair,” some say. “My boss thinks my hair is unruly.”

Some of her clients even apologize for the thickness of their hair.

“I try to be as encouraging as possible,” she said. “That’s just the way your hair grows out of your head!”

Woods is hopeful about the proposal to expand the nondiscrimination ordinance — she said that all women should be able to feel comfortable in their own skin.

“Honestly, I just truly feel that regardless of who you are, you deserve to feel and be beautiful,” she said.

Hair means freedom

As a young Black girl, Quin Williams said, hair meant beauty in all forms.

Hair meant quality time with her mother and her friends. It meant appreciating culture, sitting around a television and watching documentaries about Black folks, seeing “sisters and brothers” with their hair natural.

“Hair meant Saturdays in the salon with my grandmother, God rest her soul, listening to things I shouldn’t hear,” Williams said, laughing.

Hair meant pride to Williams, a sense of pride she “lost trying to be what I thought other people felt was appropriate in order for me to survive as a Black woman in America.”

A law protecting people who wear their hair naturally makes Williams feels like she can breathe a little easier.

“Now, I can wait for the moment people start seeing me as a human being, not just my hair,” she said.

“It is so important for people to understand that there is no white person that has to go to work and shave their head, no child that goes to school and is told they can’t graduate.”

Both versions of Republican and Democratic-led nondiscrimination proposals in Charlotte would preclude employment and other forms of discrimination based on natural hairstyles.

Soon, for Williams, hair could also mean freedom.