As It Happens

Why this natural stylist is celebrating a new Virginia law that bans hair discrimination

Hair stylist Carmen Davis says she hopes a new anti-discrimination law passed in Virginia will help her Black customers stand up for themselves and their natural hair. 

'Black hair is normalized,' says Carmen Davis, 'It's just not normalized on Black people'

Carmen Davis is a natural hair stylist in Richmond, Va., who has worn her own hair naturally — meaning without chemical processing — since 2004. (Submitted by Carmen Davis)

Transcript

Hair stylist Carmen Davis says she hopes a new anti-discrimination law passed in Virginia will help her Black customers stand up for themselves and their natural hair. 

Virginia on Wednesday became the fourth U.S. state to pass legislation that bans discrimination based on hair texture and hair type.

The new law amends the Virginia Human Rights Act to include a ban on discrimination "on the basis of traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists."

Davis is a natural hair stylist in Richmond, Va., who has worn her own hair naturally — meaning without chemical processing — since 2004. She spoke to As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue about the new law. Here is part of their conversation.

What does it mean to you to see this act come into effect in Virginia this week?

I'm really happy about it, because with all of the things that are going on right now, especially with the racial war, this was what I wanted to happen. I really wanted it to pass in every state, but I know that each state has to do it on their own accord.

But I'm overwhelmed just because I know it will help with so many of my clients and the issues that they usually have when it comes to their hair and their concerns in the workspace.

For people who aren't familiar with the term, what's meant by "natural hair" exactly?

Natural hair is hair that hasn't been chemically processed. It's basically the hair that grows out of the scalp and wearing it in that state.

So whatever the texture is — if it's kinky, coily, curly, ringlets — wearing it in that state, or even wearing it in locks, or sometimes even in braids.

What kinds of pushback have Black women in Virginia faced for choosing natural hair?

A lot of questions, concerns, people asking can they touch their hair, questioning how professional the look of that hair is in the workspace.

And there's a lot of, like, self-doubt. So I know a lot of my clients have allowed me to know that they usually just want to stick to the script. So let's say if they came to work a certain way or got hired with a certain hairstyle, they're more prone to want to wear that hair ... because they are afraid of possibly not getting the job promotion that they want, keeping the job, and like I said, just being uncomfortable in the workspace with their counterparts asking and prying when it comes to their hair.

A new law in Virginia would prevent racial discrimination based on a person's hair texture or style. (Rido/stock.adobe.com)

I know there's a lot of discussion that goes on in the hair salon. Have you heard from your clients that they've actually gone to a workplace and been discriminated against because of their hair?

Yeah, absolutely.

They've either went to work and someone has come up to them and let them know, "You may not go so far with your hair like that." You know, "Let's tone that down."

I know, for instance, when I used to wait tables, my manager used to always tell me, "I really like it better when your hair is more tamed than when it isn't."

I would wear my hair, which some call an afro, but it would be like a manipulated afro, and that was what he was referring to as not being tamed. So being more tamed would be like when I had it in a bun or a ponytail or I was wearing it straight.

What was your reaction when he said that to you?

I asked him to not reference my hair in using an adjective of "taming."

Because he was like, "It just seems so wild, usually." And I was like, "Well, my hair can't be wild and/or tame because it's not an animal. So let's just not talk about my hair going forward."

I'm bold enough and confident enough for those conversations.... So I think with that act passing, it possibly will help others feel as comfortable addressing certain situations that have been so uncomfortable.

Under the new law, Black Virginians will be protected from losing their jobs or being disciplined at school because of their hair. (jbrown/stock.adobe.com)

When you first decided to start wearing your hair naturally, you faced some backlash yourself in those early days. Can you tell us about that?

I was in college. It was like 2004, so this was a little bit ahead of the newer wave of embracing your texture in your hair and wearing it in its natural state. And my roommate didn't want me to speak to her. She just stopped talking to me.

So it was like a year or so where she and I didn't speak because she was like, "Why would you do that? That's not attractive. I don't like it."

People love that hair — but they just don't truly love it on us.- Carmen Davis, natural hair stylist

How does an experience like that, having your hair described as "wild," or I mean, how does it affect young Black girls and the way they see themselves?

It didn't affect me as much, but I know that it can have a major impression on a person.

In our community, they use the word "nappy," which I hate because, you know, it's usually used in a derogatory reference in referring to our hair.

So any time that someone then makes another reference of "wild" or "taming" or "nappy" or "rough," just something ... that you already have a hard time being comfortable with and walking outside and owning your Blackness, it definitely can dim your light. 

Davis says attitudes about natural hair can negatively impact Black girls. (pololia/stock.adobe.com)

And I know that the ... act is meant to make sure that there's no overt discrimination about natural hair. Will it help in terms of some of the subtle kind of discrimination that people experience, or the kind of unwanted touching that you just mentioned?

I'm hoping that it will help, because now that the act has passed, there should be a space [for saying], "OK, I was uncomfortable with addressing this before because there was nothing hard on paper for me to be like, 'Hey, you know, this is my hair and you said something about it and it's made me uncomfortable. Can we no longer discuss that?'"

So you're hoping that it'll normalize Black hair.

Oh yeah, for sure. Normalize Black hair. But it's so weird because it's like Black hair is normalized. It's just not normalized on Black people.

Davis says she's faced backlash over her choice to wear her hair naturally. (Submitted by Carmen Davis )

What does it say about the United States that there needs to be anti-hair discrimination laws passed?

It just shows how behind we are, because ... people on vacation, white Caucasian people, get braids. They do all of those things, and then they'll come back, they show their friends, it's a good time, it's fun. You know, it's accepted.

Kim Kardashian can get braids. It's the wave. Everyone wants to get braids next week. But then when Black girls wear braids, it's a big, thorough conversation. "Why did you do that? Did your hair grow overnight? Can I touch it? Can you explain the process to me? Did you buy that hair?"

Even with fashion shows, they'll intentionally kink out straight hair, because you know that's what is in. That's the thing. That's the look. And people love that hair — but they just don't truly love it on us.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Tayo Bero. Edited for length and clarity.

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