RTRL.59: Race-based Microaggressions Experienced by Black Girls In Relation to Their Hair (Essien & Wood, 2020)


Essien, I., & Wood, J. L. (2020). I love my hair: The weaponizing of Black girls hair by educators in early childhood education. Early Childhood Education Journal, 49(3), 401-412.

What did the researchers want to know?

What race-based microaggressions are experienced by Black girls, specifically in relation to their hair?

What did the researchers do?

Essien and Wood surveyed 44 parents of Black/African American girls in early childhood education (preschool through third grade) “to share their perspectives on their experiences and perceptions of how Black girls were engaged in early learning, with particular regard to their hair” (p. 405). Parents were provided with definitions and examples of microaggressions* and were then asked to provided open-ended descriptions of up to five relevant instances of gender-based microaggressions related to their daughters’ hair. Essien and Wood coded the parent responses to identify salient themes.

  • *Microaggressions are defined by Sue (2010) as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (p. 3).
  • Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions, marginality, and oppression: An introduction. In D. W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact (pp. 3-22). John Wiley and Sons.

What did the researchers find?

Analysis of parent responses revealed two primary ways in which Black girls experienced microaggressions related to their hair: second-class hair and a presumption of defilement. 

The first theme relates to peers’ and educators’ perceptions of Black girls’ hair as “lesser than.” “Parents reported that teachers and students extended negative comments about Black hair,” which tended to be “most common whenever hair was worn naturally” (p. 407). “Overall, the comments demonstrated that teachers perceived natural hair as nonstandard, unbeautiful, and not well-maintained” (p. 407). One parent described an incident in which her child’s teacher would put barrettes or rubber bands in her daughter’s hair because the teacher perceived the girl’s Afro as unkept. Parents also described instances of “normative assumptions about hairstyles” being communicated by their daughters’ peers. One parent recalled that her daughter was teased so much in her first week of kindergarten for wearing her hair in two puff balls that she didn’t want to wear her hair that way anymore.

The second theme relates to the assumption that Black girls’ hair is unclean. “The most pervasive connotation was that Black girls’ hair was inherently dirty” (p. 408). One parent described an example in which their kindergarten daughter was repeatedly sent to the office to be checked for lice because her hair had been styled in the same Marley braids for multiple weeks at a time. The parent recalled, “This became a recurring event, and when I asked if these checks were a regular thing for all kids, the answer was no. The nurse, unaware of the dry scalp my daughter has, repeatedly sent my daughter home claiming she had nits in her hair so she must have lice…. I finally had to go to the doctor with my daughter for an exam by the pediatrician to determine she did not in fact have lice. The missed days for nonexistent lice had an impact on my daughter’s attendance” (p. 408). Many parents also felt that teachers’ responses to their daughters being teased for “dirty” hair were unsatisfactory. “Concerns about Black mistreatment being dismissed or ignored was apparent across this theme” (p. 408).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Children need a school environment in which they feel emotionally safe and can form positive relationships. The findings of this study suggest that many Black girls experience race-based microaggressions related to their hair that may hinder their feelings of safety and relationships with teachers and peers. Teachers should be aware of the ways in which their words may send messages to Black girls about their hair, including comments about natural hairstyles (e.g., Afro, twists) that may be perceived as negative. Similarly, complimenting Black girls when their hairstyle is more aligned with European beauty standards (e.g., permed, straightened, less coiled) can also send negative messages. Additionally, teachers should be aware that negative messages about Black hair are “further reinforced by a lack of response to teasing” (p. 409).

To help educators improve the experiences of Black girls in relation to their hair, Essien and Wood suggest the acronym HAIR: Hone, Affirm, Intervene, Refrain.

  • HONE “understanding of Black hair by learning what symptoms of dry scalp look like” (p. 410).
  • AFFIRM the beauty of black hair. “Given the ubiquitous social perceptions of Black hair that are negative, it is necessary for educators to affirm the beauty of Black hair as a counter-messaging effort” (p. 410), particularly when worn in natural styles.
  • INTERVENE when Black girls are being teased for their hair. “Educators should consider negative messages about hair to be hair harassment, or bullying, and should respond to these issues with an appropriate level of intervention and consequence for perpetrators of these messages” (p. 410).
  • REFRAIN from touching, manipulating, or redoing Black children’s hair.

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