Rik Stevenson stands in front of his UF classroom, wearing a full suit, a bow tie and his salt-n-pepper dreads stretching past his shoulders and trekking down his back. He asks students to pull out a piece of paper, and make three assumptions based on his physical appearance.
Some students said his dreads make him look professorial, others say it makes him look intelligent, but Stevenson questions how the assessment was made.
“How could you judge my intelligence, based on my hair?” Stevenson said.
A study conducted by the American Psychological Association said strangers can make first impressions within half a minute. Many Black students, faculty and alumni have worn their hair naturally or in natural hairstyles, but their appearances to others have not always been positive.
Some have experienced feelings of alienation due to their natural hairstyles. They admit receiving unwelcome comments about their hair, but those experiences have led them to further embrace it.
Richard Murray, a 22-year-old UF African American studies senior, has had dreadlocks for eight years. They’ve become a part of his identity, he said.
In 2019, Murray was shopping at a Walmart in Alachua County and overheard a child telling his mother that he liked his hair. The mother responded that Murray’s hair reminded her of a thug and kept walking with her child, he said.
“I was minding my business,” Murray said. “It wasn't like I was being obnoxious.”
Despite the encounter, Murray admits no comment would sway him to change it.
“If anything, it made me embrace it even more,” Murray said. “Who are they to tell me what my value is?”
Murray said under no circumstance would he cut his hair for a job, and argued that his hairstyle should not be a determining factor in the hiring process.
Faith Morgan, a 23-year-old UF wildlife, ecology and conservation alumna, had a similar experience trying to get a job in Gainesville in 2017. She applied for a job at an animal hospital and wore a wig in the interview.
On the first day of the job, Morgan said she wore her hair naturally and within five minutes her manager said, “I like you better with straight hair.”
Morgan was the only Black person at the animal hospital, and questioned if she would have been hired had her hair been natural in the interview, she said. Her manager’s preference made her feel uncomfortable, and she got braids done the following week to prevent future altercations.
“It was hard to find a job for me in the beginning, and I was just grateful at that point, but I shouldn't have to suffer these injustices,” Morgan said.
Because of this, Morgan founded Girls w’ Curls that year, a UF organization that teaches young men and women to embrace and love their natural beauty.
With more than 500 followers on Instagram, Girls w’ Curls has collaborated with organizations on campus, like the Black Student Union and the Iota Lambda Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha. They’ve also featured guest speakers who spoke on race-based hair discrimination in the workplace.
Diversity inclusion training could be a potential solution to issues like this in the future, Morgan said. While Morgan and Girls w’ Curls have taken strides to improve the perception of natural hair, instances like these have occurred outside of Alachua County for years.
In May 2010, Chasity C. Jones, who wore short dreadlocks, was offered a customer service position and fired once she refused to cut her dreadlocks at the human resources manager’s request.
Three UF College of Journalism and Communication doctoral students conducted a study that examines Black hair products and how the industry appeals to Black female consumers. The study found that Black women gravitate towards brands that align with their identity, but also report feeling undervalued and misrepresented by hair brands like Pantene.
By denying hairstyles such as dreadlocks, Black people are encouraged to use irreversible hair treatments to straighten their thick textures, or wear wigs to disguise them, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
UF professor Rachel Grant, who teaches “Race, Gender, Class and the Media” said that Black hair is used as a form of discrimination and oppression “to otherize individuals,” in order to uphold European beauty standards.
The Florida Senate bill 566 worked to halt discrimination of protective styles such as braids, locks, or twists. While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination of afros, it omits other natural hairstyles. This bill later became known as the CROWN Act.
The CROWN Act, defined as "Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” was terminated on the senate floor in March. The act would have made it unlawful to discriminate against racial characteristics, such as hair texture.
While seven states have adopted the CROWN act, progress in Florida appears stagnant. Rik Stevenson, a man who has worn his dreads proudly for 14 years, calls himself a renaissance man. When not teaching diversity and inclusion courses at UF, he’s scuba diving, flying planes and riding his motorcycle under the fitting name “groundbreaker.”
In 2006, he applied to be a pastor at a predominantly white church, he said. In the interview, he didn’t have dreadlocks and was offered the job. Within a week, he started locking his short hair. He believes the interview process would’ve gone differently if he had long dreadlocks.
Stevenson said his hair is a reflection of his heritage: his five brothers and sisters, his parents who never went to college and the counselor who told him he could never be a teacher. His dreadlocks are a distinct part of who he is, and said that listening to others expectations will put you in a quandary.
“Some people will love you because of your hair and then there are people who hate you,” Stevenson said.
Telling someone to wear their hair a particular way defies the normality of its natural state, he said, and he encourages others to reclaim a sense of self-pride in natural hairstyles.