Tangrina Minott ’19 (CLAS), a talent recruiter for a Connecticut-based health care company, recalled the first time she asked her mother to straighten her hair in the fifth or sixth grade.
“Everyone in my predominantly Black school had straight hair and I felt the need to conform. I was happy at first, but the hair relaxers use harsh chemicals, they burn, and they leave your scalp very irritated. By 19, I was over it,’’ says Minott, who has chosen to adopt a natural hairstyle.
As a UConn undergraduate, Bryant Dominguez ’13 (CLAS) spent a lot of time making sure his chest-length hair looked great. But when he was applying for a competitive internship, one of his mentors told him that if he kept the hair, he probably wouldn’t get the job.
“I thought my hair looked really cool,’’ says Dominguez, a native of the Dominican Republic and now a manager at a large insurance company. “I cut it that weekend. It was the saddest thing ever. I did it because I needed a job.’’
Connecticut Joins Eight States in Fighting ‘Natural Hair’ Discrimination
Several UConn alums say that from late childhood on, they experienced pressure to straighten or cut their hair to conform to a culture that values hair styles typically associated with white people. The pressure intensified as they prepared to join the workforce, where Afro-centric hair may be considered untidy, unprofessional, or too bold for the corporate culture.
When Gov. Ned Lamont signed the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act into law this week, prohibiting discrimination in the workplace or schools based on someone’s natural hair, it was a victory, they say. Connecticut joins California, New York, New Jersey, and five others in passing the legislation.
Seanice Austin, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the School of Business, says hair is an integral part of the conversations she’s had with students for the last 20 years as they prepare for internships and jobs.
“We’ve talked about why they can’t ‘push the envelope’ when they’re interviewing, and how it is important to avoid giving a company any reason not to hire you,’’ she says.
“While I’m pleased about the CROWN Act becoming law, I do think it’s an ‘easy win’ for legislators,’’ Austin says. “There needs to be significant legislation that addresses equity in the workplace. I hope this opens doors for that.’’
“The right to wear authentic hair should have been a given,’’ Austin says. “The fact that we have to have a law about it is telling as to where we are as a state and community.’’
Planning Interviews Around Hair Appointments
Aigne Goldsby ’16 JD, an attorney in Connecticut and the founder of Black Esquire, a company that seeks to increase diversity in the legal profession, says she felt the pressure to alter her hair starting in elementary school.
“It’s a very real thing. I know women who will plan job interviews around when their hair is being straightened,’’ Goldsby says. In the legal profession, where less than 2% of attorneys are Black women, the pressure is compounded.
“It took a long time to wear my natural hair in that environment. It was only when I saw other women doing it that I felt empowered,’’ she says.
“Society starts to push this on us at a young age,’’ she says. “I had a job interview, and the recruiter called with one day’s notice, and my first thought was, ‘Oh, my hair isn’t done.’ Usually in an interview you want to be as ‘safe’ as possible. A lot of Black women I know feel that way.
“This legislation is more broadly about acceptance of all people as who they are,’’ she says. “Our society is supposed to be diverse and inclusive of everyone. This issue is very personal and important to me. Society needs to stop setting these ‘norms.’ I’m excited for it and especially that this movement received attention during Black History Month.’’
Professor: Authenticity in the Workplace Makes Employees Happier
Management Professor Travis Grosser, who is the academic director of the master’s degree program in Human Resources Management, says the legislation raises awareness about both overt discrimination and unconscious bias in the workplace.
“I think today there is a growing appreciation and recognition of the importance of authenticity in the workplace,’’ he says. Companies that allow individuality – versus prescribed norms – tend to have a more positive workplace, with better engagement, lower turnover, and higher employee performance. “Eliminating stereotypical looks and behaviors and allowing individuality seems to be a positive for everyone,’’ he says.
Companies with a diverse workforce are more innovative, successful, and have greater consumer relatability than others, he notes.
‘This is Stupid; I Can’t Do this Any More’
Kadijah McGehee ’16 (BUS) attended a regional conference for Black business students as a college sophomore and was wearing a dress, blazer, and a blonde wig. During a discussion about attire and professionalism, she was criticized by her peers for the color of her hair.
“It was very awkward. I felt like I was on a reality show,’’ she says. “I thought ‘Wow, this is how you guys feel?’ Women of all races and ethnicities dye their hair. Why is it OK for white women to color their hair blonde, but not for me?’’
In the workplace, she would change her wigs and styles frequently and was often asked questions about her hair that made her feel uncomfortable. “I’d try to shrink my creativity down. It got to a point where I said, ‘This is stupid. I can’t do this anymore.’ ’’
“A lot of Black women feel for an interview they need to straighten their hair and lower their creativity; go for a very beige, very vanilla look,’’ she says.
At a previous job, she heard that an executive discussed her hairstyles with a team of employees behind her back. “I was floored! I went to HR. It made me uncomfortable and anxiety ridden. I thought, ‘Am I back in high school?’ No one needs this layer of nonsense on top of their work responsibilities.’’
She believes the CROWN Act will make companies take these complaints more seriously and offer an extra layer of support for employees.
“The bigger issue, the underlying problem is conformance,’’ she says. “If a company is telling its employees, ‘We want you to look like the majority of people who work here,’ and most of my co-workers are white, their hair isn’t going to look like mine!’’
‘Wear It Proudly’
Minott once had a co-worker ask if she could touch her hair. “I said, ‘No, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t,’ and she did it anyway.’’ When Minott complained to human resources, the response was minimal.
“In the workplace, you want to be treated professionally,’’ Minott says. “I think the CROWN Act is a step in the right direction by addressing hairstyles historically associated with Black and brown people. Our hair is professional in its natural state and has nothing to do with our ability to perform in the workplace.
“For white women, they can wear their hair in a variety of styles, in a bun, or wear it down, and no one thinks anything of it,’’ she says. “When you have darker skin and your hair is more Afrocentric, some see it as a statement of boldness. We’re not pushing it in anyone’s face. We’re just coming to work. The CROWN Act symbolizes that our hair is not something to be ashamed about. Wear it proudly; that’s your right.’’
Dominguez says it has been 10 years since his college interview, and his shorter haircut now feels right to him, and requires less maintenance. But he hopes that the law sparks more acceptance of individuality on many levels.
“It’s good that it’s being talked about,’’ he says. “Hair doesn’t take away your ability to do a task. It’s good that the conversation is happening and that little by little, we’re moving in a different direction.’’