Last updated on July 1st, 2023
Hair relaxer defects disproportionately impact Women of Color. We invited Adia Carter, a writer and expert on Afro-textured hair, to share her perspective on the current hair relaxer lawsuits alleging that the products can be carcinogenic.
‘Before every job interview, I consult a worried expression in the mirror. My eyes take in the freshly ironed blouse, professional smile, and a carefully quaffed fro. Just three hours before, I pruned and prepped my mane with a concoction of leave-in cream and rosemary oil. Somehow as I sit in front of three-year-old laptop, my hope chips away. Much like my gaze in the mirror, the interviewers are perplexed. I force my smile to remain polite as they stumble over my Swahili name and compliment my hair. By time we part ways, a tinge of sadness is in my stomach. I already know I didn’t get it.
This is a common occurrence for Black women in America. The two roads of black identity for black women are simple: to straighten or go natural. To be natural in corporate America means getting comfortable with consistent no’s and preconceived notions of your character. However, to wear relaxed hair means to blend, and more recently, to risk uterine cancer.
Nearly 100 lawsuits have been filed against companies making relaxers, with L’Oréal’s US brands — Dark n Lovely, ORS Olive Oil and Motions — at the center. With claims that these companies were aware of the cancer-causing agents, the lawsuits point to the bitter reality that black women’s health is not considered nor valued.
Assimilation for survival has rested in the psyche of every black woman since we first stepped foot in America. Beauty wasn’t a tangible aspect for many black women; we knew pain and suffering as the only meanings of life. Our humanity tethered on what we could contribute, and soon after emancipation, survival was the only mode of focus. With the black family structure relying on black women to carry the financial and familial burden, it was imperative we could assimilate. Integrating into society didn’t just mean speaking eloquently and downcast eyes when passing white patrons; it meant looking the part. As early as the 1900s, black women turned to hair straightening and would continue the tradition well into the 60s.
Black hair care had unique expectations because it required that afro-textured hair be manipulated enough to resemble the flowing tresses of white starlets like Rita Hayworth. In Byrdie’s article, “It’s Time to Learn the History Behind the Silk Press”, a part of the Crowned series, Star Donaldson mentions, “After slavery was abolished, newly freed black Americans were virtually unprotected by the government, which led to widespread violence by terrorist groups…Jim Crow laws also made it difficult for Black people to enjoy their full rights as citizens and secure employment. Finding jobs and creating a life meant altering our hair texture in order to fit into the European beauty standards of the time.”
Of course, black women did what they do best in adversity — adapt. Black women taught themselves how to dress and style their hair appropriately. It wasn’t until Madam CJ Walker came into the picture that black beauty started to flourish. Every little black girl can recall her first encounter with the fairy tale of Madam CJ Walker’s hot comb. In my own experience, every hair salon I frequented proudly perched Walker’s portrait on the wall as puffs of flat iron smoke wafted around the frame. Just like the success of Madam CJ Walker’s hot comb, Garrett Augustus Morgan created the hair relaxer, and in 1954, George E. Johnson created the Ultra Wave Hair Care — a relaxer for black men. Relaxers brought of sense of ease during this era because black people could finally straighten their hair without the stress of managing kinks and overt discrimination from not conforming.
Brilliant fros and black militancy had a surge with the Black Panther and Pan Africanist movement in the late 60s and 70s, but sadly, fros didn’t stay in style with everyone. The 80s demanded respectability politics that could iron out being too black, hair included. For years, black women accepted that to be beautiful was for hair to be 30 inches down your back, all with the help of hair weaves and relaxers.
Despite the mystique of straight hair, I chose to go natural in 2017 after the natural hair movement reeled me in. A huge part of the resurgence of natural hair came with online activism following police brutality and the younger generations wanting to find a connection with their black roots. The dangers of relaxers were certainly known but it wasn’t enough to stop black women from getting them done, as the risk of losing out on jobs to make a living is too great.
Although strides for embracing black beauty in the 1960s were made, they couldn’t protect black people from hair discrimination. One of the first cases of hair discrimination after the “Black is Beautiful” movement was Jenkins v Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance when an employer had “a bias against afros”. Even though afros could be worn, increasing pressure to straighten hair wore black people, especially women, down. Scholar Tracey Owens Patton pointed out that, “the progressive changes made during the Black Power movement eroded as assimilation became more dominant in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.”
What both the Black Power movement in the late 60s and the natural hair movement in the 2010s taught us is that black hair, especially as a woman, is social currency. Black girls are groomed to be as close to perfection as possible, encouraged to shrink themselves enough so other races will see a shell of a human being. By shrinking our textures with relaxers and shying away from being too “much”, there’s a tiny hope that we’ll be shielded from stereotypes and discrimination. While the CROWN Act sought to protect natural hair in the workplace, and resulted in 20 states adopting it, discrimination against afro-textured hair and protective styles is still rampant. Harvard Business Review’s “How Hair Discrimination Affects Black Women at Work” lists,
“Black women’s hair was two-and-a-half times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional and more than half of the Black women surveyed felt like they had to wear their hair straight in a job interview to be successful. Two-thirds reported that they had changed their hair for a job interview.”
This alone reminds us that living in modernization will never mean discrimination has died completely.
If many black Americans are raised to covet the American Dream, and believe it exists if they work hard enough, wouldn’t it make sense for them to eliminate anything that holds them back from that dream? Natural hair then takes a back seat. The 2023 L’Oréal Relaxer Lawsuits point to the inevitable downfall of black women forced to assimilate to survive. The insidious effect of workplace racism and hair discrimination flourishes, and it pushes black women into a corner. Additionally, it points to the devastating truth that politics and presentability is literally life or death for Black women.
The joy of natural hair has taken a somber tone for me. I’m not alone in my fear and disgust for the reality black women battle. Whether we choose to embrace our natural beauty or relax it to conform, danger lurks around the corner. While more research is needed to understand the full scope of the L’Oréal Relaxer lawsuits, an investigation opened where 34,000 participants were monitored for ten years. 378 uterine cancer cases were diagnosed.
If we look back to the elders who preached black resilience and defiance, we can find only one answer: a never-ending fight. When I find myself lamenting over the microaggressions I encounter at my local whole foods or watch as my hair is analyzed and misunderstood, a part of me shrinks. A saving grace I keep with me is that the turmoil black women endure today is nothing we can’t overcome. As our ancestors fought for sovereignty and identity in a country that once considered them cargo, we will trudge on and create healthier hair alternatives. Our perseverance to prevail is how black women remained inventive, even during times of uncertainty. A bright note is that black female entrepreneurs in the hair industry are constantly finding alternatives to harmful products. Companies like Rebundle, founded by Ciara Imani May, is the first plant-based braiding company that prioritizes sustainability. Rebundle is a refreshing stride since protective styles like box braids rely on Kanekelon, “a plastic braiding hair that includes volatile organic compounds or VOCs. Along with being toxic and carcinogenic, VOCs have negative effects on indoor air quality.
L’Oréal’s Relaxer lawsuits aren’t just devastating for the Black women affected by uterine cancers; it’s a pattern. Dangerous ingredients in black hair care are a continuation of black beauty rooting in the desperation and necessity to survival and submit to Eurocentric beauty. History will continue to rewrite itself as Black people assert their place in society. Yet, a sliver of hope can exist on the horizon if the black community pulls back from companies that choose to use these harmful products. The more cases I read, the less my natural hair feels like liberation. Rather, my hair is just another side of the Black female experience.
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