First-Ever Hair Implicit Association Test Shows White Women Have Greatest Bias Toward Natural Hair

February 1, 2017  |  

We didn’t need a study to know that bias against natural hair is real. What we did need, however, was a study to qualify the countless personal stories and discriminatory anecdotes that regularly make national headlines so those outside the natural hair community understand such incidents are not isolated, and Perception Institute has given us just that.

natural hair bias

Based on the Implicit Association Test (IAT), “a decades-old racial bias test which, it should be noted, has faced recent scrutiny over its accuracy,” as NY Mag noted, the Perception Institute, in conjunction with a creative team at SheaMoisture, developed the first Hair IAT to assess unconscious bias toward textured hair. An assessment of women’s explicit attitudes toward Black women’s hair, hair anxiety, and experiences related to their own hair, was also done in conjunction with the study.

A total of 4,163 participants were surveyed, including a national sample of 3,475 men and women, and a sample of 688 women from an online natural hair community. Participants were shown images of a woman wearing a variety of smooth and natural hairstyles — braids, locs, ‘fros — and asked to associate positive or negative words with each one. For the explicit part of the test researchers asked participants to look at similar photos again and rate how pretty, professional, and sexy the model was and how they thought society perceived those looks.

Alexis McGill Johnson, Executive Director and Co-founder of the Perception Institute told Broadly the results were 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 explained. “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 specific findings of “The ‘Good Hair’ Study: Explicit and Implicit Attitudes Toward Black Women’s Hair” were as follows:

  • The majority of participants, regardless of race, show implicit bias against Black women’s textured hair.
  • Black women who are part of an online natural hair community are more likely to show a preference for Black women’s textured hair.
  • White women in the natural hair community are three times more likely to be neutral than white women in the national sample, though the majority still show preference for smooth hair.

As for womens’ attitudes toward their own hair, the survey found:

  • Almost all women worry about their hair to some extent; Black women experience high levels of anxiety more than white women.
  • One in three Black women report that their hair is the reason they haven’t exercised, compared to one in ten white women.
  •  One in five Black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work — twice as many as white women.
  • Black women are more likely to report spending more time on their hair than white women.
  • Black women are more likely to report having professional styling appointments more often than white women.
  • Black women are more likely to report spending more money on products for their hair than white women.
  • One in four Black women have difficulty finding products for their hair—more than half have not been able to find products for their hair.


While researchers acknowledge these results are preliminary, they note, “Our findings provide an important backdrop to recent events related to natural hair.” Such events include the firings of Black women over their natural hair; the federal court ruling refusing to hire someone with locs is not a form of racial discrimination; and even the army’s temporary ban on many natural hairstyles. As such, these results aren’t just about hair, but Black women’s experience in the workplace and even their barriers to financial growth and upward mobility.

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