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Random white people constantly bombard Shade Burgs with unwanted touches, glances and comments about his waist-length locs.
The Des Moines, Iowa, man kept track of their obsession with his locs for 90 days, logging each time strangers touched and commented on his hair. During that time span, six older white women touched his locs without his permission, four younger white women and an Asian woman pounded him with questions about how often he washes his hair, how long it takes to style and expressed their surprise that his hair “always smells so good.” They also asked how Burgs, who works as a problem order and inventory specialist for a chemical company in Ames, keeps it from “smelling bad.”
Des Moines, Iowa, man Shade Burgs' locs garner unwanted attention. Burgs has experienced hair discrimination. Photo courtesy of Burgs.
Three whites used the terms “greasy” and “dirty” when discussing locs with him and told him about the alleged “bugs” in Bob Marley’s hair when he died. A white man doubted Burgs was "really a veteran" because of his hair. Another white man argued with him about the origins of locs and told him "Dread locs aren't a traditional “Black hairstyle” and that “Nordic people” had locs before Africans.
“I, in the politest way possible, explained that while the Vikings were still trying to figure out how sails worked, Africans had riches on every continent, were master navigators, had multi-level ship building, as well as, established trade with other people. He was not convinced.”
Shade Burgs and his head-turning locs. Photos courtesy of Burgs.
Burgs, who began growing his locs 16 years ago, is used to whites being obsessed with his hair, but their unwanted fascination has come at a cost. He said he has been denied a job and housing because of their bias about his hair.
“As hard as it is for me to restrain myself, I value my job and freedom a little more than I used to, and in reality, I love that they think less of me but cannot compete with me when it comes to getting the job done,” he said.
Many Blacks report similar stories of being discriminated against and harassed at school, work and in their daily lives because of their hair.
Advocates and lawmakers have pushed for the passage of The CROWN Act, Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, prohibiting race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture and protective natural hairstyles including braids, locs, twists and bantu knots. Eighteen states have signed the CROWN Act into law so far, according to the website. Some cities and counties have also passed similar measures, including recently in Austin, Texas.
"The President believes that no person should be denied the ability to obtain a job, succeed in school or the workplace, secure housing, or otherwise exercise their rights based on a hair texture or hair style. Over the course of our nation’s history, society has used hair texture and hairstyle — along with race, national origin and skin color — to discriminate against individuals," according to the White House.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the federal CROWN Act in March, and the bill is now with the U.S. Senate. Iowa has failed twice to advance the CROWN act, but legislators have vowed to keep trying.
Black Iowans agree hair bias and discrimination is real and repetitive. According to the official CROWN Act website, Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair, and Black women are 80% more likely than white women to feel they have to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.
Young Black girls begin experiencing racial bias and hair discrimination early. According to the 2021 Dove CROWN Research Study, Black girls' elementary school years are particularly difficult.
“Hair Bias and discrimination is prevalent in predominantly white schools where Black girls are most vulnerable to racial bias and discrimination,” according to the study, which surveyed 1,000 school-aged girls.
The study found:
- 53% of Black mothers, whose daughters have experienced hair discrimination, say their daughters have experienced race-based hair discrimination as early as 5 years-old.
- 66% of Black girls in majority-white schools experienced hair discrimination, with 87% of those girls facing the discrimination by the age of 12.
- 100% of Black elementary school girls in majority-white schools who report experiencing hair discrimination state they experienced the discrimination by the age of 10.
- 45% of Black school girls ages 5-18 in all school environments report experiencing hair bias and discrimination.
- 81% of Black girls in majority-white schools say they sometimes wish their hair was straight.
- 32% of Black girls state that “negative comments about my hair make me feel bad about myself.”
Black Iowans shared similar stories.
Gubernatorial candidate Deidre DeJear and Erica Brewer, owner of Belle Allure Minkz and Boutique in Dubuque. Photo courtesy of Brewer.
“For me it’s that one question: Can I touch your hair?” said Erica Brewer, owner of Belle Allure Minkz and Boutique in Dubuque. “I cannot stand that question. "
The lash and braid expert remembers dyeing her hair red when she once worked as a housekeeper for a hotel chain. A white co-worker also had dyed hair.
“She wasn’t a natural carrot top,” Brewer said. “She dyed her hair auburn. Now this was a white woman. I come in and my hair’s red. They told me I couldn’t wear that color to work because that wasn’t my natural hair color. I said, 'Well, that’s not her natural hair color.”
The employer told her the other woman could “pass” for having red hair naturally, unlike Brewer, she said.
“That made me wear color even more,” said Brewer, named the 2022 Deb Dalziel Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by America's SBDC Iowa.
It’s one of the many reasons she supports passing the Crown Act.
Tene Williams is owner of AM/PM Braiding Studio LLC in Sioux City. Photo courtesy of Williams.
Tene Williams, owner of AM/PM Braiding Studio LLC of Sioux City, said Iowa needs the CROWN Act. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native said hair discrimination isn’t happening “directly and blatantly” in Sioux City because the area doesn’t have a strong “blue collar economy" and has a drug epidemic, so employers are limited in finding employees.
“So really, you can’t afford to discriminate against somebody because of their hair,” she said. “What are you going to do? You going to close your company down, or are you going to hire them?"
She said part of the problem is there’s a misconception that “there is no racism in the North.”
“I’m like that is bullshit,” she said. “There is much more racism here than I’ve experienced in Louisiana.”
Microaggressions are also a problem, she said.
“A lot of microaggression is masked as a compliment, but it’s not. It’s not harmless. Nor is it a compliment." she said. It's “I’m singling you out. I'm telling you that, 'Yes, we’re separated. We’re not equal.”
Martavious Clayton, a barber at Platinum Signature Barbershop in West Des Moines, during a back-to-school event in Johnston, Iowa.
Martavious Clayton, a West Des Moines barber, said things have improved because he sees more men being able to wear “dreads” at work.
“Before, you’ve got guys like, “Go ahead man, cut my hair off, I have a job interview,’” he said. “But now you’ve got guys who say, ‘Line me up and just make it look nice on the side. I’m going to a job interview.’”
A barber for 15 years, Clayton has also noticed men with more facial hair.
“You’ll find a lot more guys rocking a longer beard,” he said. “So I don’t see too much discrimination of our hair.”
His clients also tell him their co-workers compliment them and notice what’s happening with Blacks' hair.
“Other races are really loving the way our haircuts look nowadays,” he said.
Breanna Mozee, 15, a sophomore at North High School in Des Moines, spent four hours creating her faux locs. She said Black hair is beautiful and unique.
“I don’t think it should be used to discriminate,” she said. “It’s not our choice the kind of hair we get.”
Breanna Mozee, 15, a sophomore at North High School in Des Moines, at Evelyn K. Davis Park in Des Moines during a recent festival. Photo by Black Iowa News.
Cortney Ewing is a certified hair loss practitioner and certified associate trichologist at Arukah Hair Loss Center in West Des Moines. She said the CROWN Act should be signed and enacted in Iowa and everywhere else.
Cortney Ewing is a certified hair loss practitioner and certified associate trichologist at Arukah Hair Loss Center in West Des Moines.
“Because at some point in our life, we have all felt that discrimination, awkward stares, or small unnecessary comments,” she said. “We as Blacks cannot help how our hair grows from our scalp. It’s naturally curly because the shape of our hair follicle is an oval shape.”
Williams said history "has taught us that we're not good enough," but Blacks have begun "rebelling against the norm" by embracing their natural curls and coils. An emphasis has been placed on preserving natural hair, she said. She likes seeing influencers and celebrities like Issa Rae and Taraji P. Henson using their platforms to embrace natural hair, which is causing the natural hair movement to gain even more visibility and acceptance in society.
Actress Issa Rae attends Marie Claire's Third Annual Image Makers Awards on January 11, 2018, in West Hollywood, Los Angeles. / AFP PHOTO / TARA ZIEMBA (Photo credit should read TARA ZIEMBA/AFP via Getty Images)
"That is positive because I don't have to worry about six-year-old girls coming into my shop crying because their hair is in an afro and it's not long and blonde," she said. "I don't have to worry about a 25-year-old woman who's had two kids and thinks that her afro is not beautiful enough, so she needs a sew-in or she needs 62-inch weave," she said.
Williams said the natural hair movement is amplifying the message that Black women can be executives and CEOs and achieve at the highest levels all while wearing their natural hair.
"That's the thing that I love about a Black woman. She can be whoever she wants to be with just one change of her hair," said the braiding studio owner.
Clayton agreed. The barber grew up in East St. Louis, Missouri, watching "a lot of women trying to fit in by putting perms in their hair," he said.
"Women walking around with their natural hair, that's more beautiful to me than a woman that walks around with her hair permed," he said.
Now, he sees an increasing number of Black women wearing their hair in its natural state.
"I appreciate that more than trying to fit into a society that never will accept you," he said. "So why don't we just stick with what we have and run with that?"
Respect Black Hair Series:
- Respect Black Hair: Moisture, good habits key, say Black Iowa hair professionals
- Respect Black Hair: Black hair products can contain hazardous chemicals, say Black hair professionals
Coming up: The Culture of Black Hair
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