Identity

'Can I Touch It?' The Implicit Bias Against Black Women's Natural Hair

Researchers from the Perception Institute developed the first-ever Hair Implicit Association Test to measure whether or not people are unconsciously biased against black women's hair. The results of their study were published today, offering a new set...

by Kimberly Lawson
Jan 31 2017, 7:00pm

Photo by Lumina via Stocksy

Before she was allowed to work from home, Gloria, an IT administrator in North Carolina says she often felt "like a science project" when she went to the office. As the only black person in her department, her natural hair, which she sometimes wore in an afro with a partial updo, garnered more attention than she was comfortable with. "I always felt like I stuck out," she says. "There was always some sort of, 'How did you get your hair like that,' 'Can I touch it,' or 'Oh, here comes Gloria—I'm not going to be able to see in the meeting.'"

While she dealt with microaggressions regularly, Gloria says she's also been told by people in upper-level positions that the way she wore her hair wasn't appropriate for the workplace. For example, she says the manager (a childhood friend) who hired her in her current position asked her if she was "going to be wearing her hair like that." After a brief exchange, in which Gloria emphasized that "this was the way" she wore her hair, the manager changed the subject.

For many, and especially for many women of color, hair can play a central role in the forming of identities. Cheryl Thompson, a University of Toronto professor with a background in visual culture and identity politics, wrote in 2009, "For young black girls, hair is not just something to play with, it is something that is laden with messages, and it has the power to dictate how others treat you, and in turn, how you feel about yourself."

Read more: The Gender-Neutral Hair Salon Cutting Through Sexism

That's part of the reason why Alexis McGill Johnson, the executive director and co-founder of the Perception Institute (a group of researchers and advocates working to translate psychological science to help reduce discrimination and other harms linked to race, gender, and other identity differences), and her fellow researchers developed the first-ever Hair Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures whether or not men and women are unconsciously biased against women of color's natural hairstyles. The results of their study, which surveyed more than 4,000 people last year from a national sample as well as a database of subscribers to a natural online hair community, were published today, thus offering a new set of metrics that underscore how bias operates.

McGill Johnson and her team adapted the widely used IAT developed at Harvard for their study. In this case, participants were presented with images of a woman wearing various smooth hairstyles and textured hairstyles (such as braids, dreads, and afro) and asked to associate positive or negative words with each. To better understand people's attitudes toward hair, researchers also conducted an explicit test, asking participants to look at photos of, again, a model wearing different hairstyles and rate how pretty, professional, and sexy she was. They were also asked to share their opinions on how they thought society perceived those looks.

Photo by Lumina via Stocksy.

In terms of the IAT, the study found that a majority of participants, regardless of race, showed implicit bias against black women's textured hair. "That's somewhat expected because hair is a key racial identifier and second only to skin color," McGill Johnson says. "Obviously, the associations that we make around race will transfer to hair."

What was interesting, she continues, was the discovery that black women who subscribed to an online natural hair community were more likely to show a preference for natural or textured hair, while black women in the national sample still showed implicit bias toward textured hair.

We all hold biases, including against groups we identify with

"We all hold biases, including against groups we identify with," says Rachel Godsil, director of research at the Perception Institute and co-author on the study. Identifying as a "naturalista" wasn't enough for black women in the national sample to overcome cultural cues, she says. The differentiating factor for the two groups was participation in an online community, thus pointing to a possible method of reducing implicit bias, she says. It shows the power of the association of a strong, positive community, "and the fact that people can counter the barrage of negative stimuli we're receiving from society at large by virtue of self-selecting into a community like this one."

In terms of the explicit attitudes survey, McGill Johnson says the results were about as expected. "On average, white women showed explicit bias to black women's textured hair. They rated it as less beautiful, less sexy, less professional than smoother hair," she says. "Black women, on the other hand, had significantly more positive attitudes toward textured hair, particularly black women in the natural hair community. They rated the pictures more positively. But when we asked how society viewed these various women, they assumed there was a certain level of social stigma against textured hair."

The report also noted that black women are twice as likely to feel pressured to wear their hair straightened at work compared to white women. Despite the growing popularity of the natural hair movement, McGill Johnson says "we still have these embedded perceptions that natural hair is not quite professional." For decades, black women's internal self-perception has been governed by the dominant standard of straight hair, she says. "Since Madam CJ Walker, black women have had a means toward straightening their hair in a way that would help them assimilate into a larger, white, dominant society, where the job opportunities and so forth are given."

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

The implications of this study are huge for women in the workplace. On average, black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that in one part of the country, the courts have held that standards around hair don't constitute racial discrimination. In other words, an employer can refuse to hire a black woman if she refuses to cut off her dreads.

How a woman chooses to wear her hair is a personal choice that reflects her style, McGill Johnson says. The fact that this choice can "actually trigger a bias in someone is significant."

"Work has to be done in educating a wide array of people who are engaged in the workplace," she continues. "The workplace is an environment in which we as black women want to bring our best selves, who we think we are, into the office, but we also want to make sure when we do so, that neither gender, nor race, nor hair is actually triggering a negative bias that could impact how someone sees us or our performance."