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On January 26th, Insider published an interview with Monique Coleman in recognition of the fifteenth anniversary of High School Musical.
In the interview, Coleman revealed that her character in the film, Taylor McKessie, actually wore her signature headbands because the onset crew didn’t know how to style Black hair. Coleman’s heartbreaking disclosure thereafter sparked discourse on social media surrounding the unique hair discrimination and lack of representation Black women in Hollywood, and other non-visible industries, have long endured.
In the article, Coleman stated, “The truth is that they had done my hair, and they had done it very poorly in the front.” As a result, she suggested they “incorporate headbands into her character [to] just make that a part of who [Taylor] is.”
Taylor McKessie was many Black girls’ favorite character within the Highschool Musical franchise, myself included. She is smart, witty, supportive, ambitious, and subverted stereotypical narratives Hollywood tends to place on Black female characters, especially within predominantly white casts. So learning about the hardships Coleman had to bear on account of her hair was disappointing but unfortunately not surprising. The reality that Black women’s hair is all too often not accommodated in the workplace is nothing new.
In fact, this very same conversation of the lack of necessary accommodation for Black talent on sets has happened before. Vice wrote an article in 2019 discussing discrimination towards Black hair in Hollywood when model Olivia Anakwe took to Instagram to publicize that while she was working a photoshoot, there wasn’t a stylist on set who was familiar with styling her natural hair. Anakwe then had to go through the trouble of finding anyone on set who could, even if they worked in other departments.
Afterward, a slew of Black female celebrities like Natasha Rothwell and Gabriel Union shared their experiences of also having to manage their own hair on production sets, showing solidarity with Anakwe, and raising further awareness about the issue on social media.
Similarly, to corroborate Coleman’s experience, many people dug up videos or tweets of other high profile Black female actresses like Riverdale’s Vanessa Morgan and Ashleigh Murray, and Hamilton’s Renée Goldsberry who have openly discussed the not-so-secret occurrence of Black women having to do their own hair because stylists on film sets cannot correctly style Black hair.
Adding insult to injury, Hollywood sets often act as if they’re starved of choice when it comes to finding Black hairstylists who can do hair for Black talent. With all the skilled Black hairstylists at the disposal of production studios, it’s a deliberate choice to opt-out of hiring Black hairstylists in lieu of white ones. Ultimately, forcing Black cast members to manage their own hair for filming, while other non-Black cast members don’t, is an act of aggression.
In recognition of the ongoing diversity happening within mainstream American media, Coleman further stated in her interview, “We’ve grown a lot in this industry and we’ve grown a lot in representation and we’ve grown a lot in terms of understanding the needs of an African American actress.” Luckily, we are moving in the right direction regarding Black hair in Hollywood. See: Insecure and This Is Us.
However, Black women are still having to navigate through hair discrimination in Hollywood. Not to mention, Black women in other industries, especially ones that are not in the public eye, often suffer in silence. Aimee Simeon perfectly sums it up in an article for Refinery29 stating, “Not even Coleman’s success as part of such a popular film series exempted her from having to find a solution to make her feel more comfortable with her look, a position that far too many Black women are put in on big-budget TV and film sets.”
Black women elsewhere with not as much fame, money, or status as the women mentioned throughout this article are likely to go unheard regarding whatever accommodations they need to effectively do their job or they may be too afraid to speak up.
Thankfully, Coleman has brought this conversation to the forefront again, so non-Black creators and employers can be made aware of this ongoing problem. So, what many predominantly white industries and companies must learn is having diversity in itself is simply not enough without accommodation. Representation means nothing if Black women are made to feel uncomfortable, othered, or outcasted from the rest of their co-workers.
Given the long history of Black people being shut out of white-collar or high profile workplaces, employers have to care enough about their Black hires to satisfy whatever circumstances are necessary to accommodate Black folks into the workplace. Understandably, first, that means being made aware of the unique circumstances we may face or white employers may unknowingly perpetuate.
Discussions like the one Coleman and many other Black women have sparked on social media are the first steps towards creating equitable work environments across all industries. But, as Simeon concludes in her article, going forward progress towards equity in Hollywood and other workplaces “shouldn’t always fall solely to the hands and ideas of Black talent.”
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