This February, during Black History Month, Starbucks is proud to celebrate the unique stories of our Black partners and customers. We honor them and we see them, and we encourage you to see them too. Move past the stereotypes, the assumptions, the misperceptions, the things you think you may know, the skin color. And get to know them as individuals. Learn the breadth and depth of their distinct lives.
The first time Adrianna Petty cut all her hair off, she cried.
It was five years ago, and she’d just gotten married. Her hair was long, jet black, curly, down her back. She was so proud of it. Her hair reflected the rich blend of her African American, Puerto Rican and Native American heritages.
But she spent so much time on it, taking care of her scalp with coconut and castor oils, clarifying conditioners and hot-oil treatments under a hair dryer. On Sundays, she’d have to block out an hour or more for the big weekly wash. It wasn’t just vanity; it’s how long it would take.
The wedding felt like a new chapter. A new look seemed appropriate.
"I would say those were happy tears," Petty says. "I remember the image of my hair on the floor and just being shocked."
Black hair is an important marker of Black identity, a source of self-expression and creativity like any other ethnic group, but at times a political statement (like afros in the 1960s and ‘70s) or cultural identification marker (like dreadlocks). Black hair has also been in the news lately: short animated film about black hair won an Oscar, and governments across the United States weigh in on controversial legislation to stop discrimination based on hair.
California and New York were the first states to enact laws forbidding race-based hair discrimination, coming after reports of Black students who were banned or restricted from school or sporting events for wearing dreadlocks or braid extensions. Black adults have also reported that typically Black hairstyles – such as afros, twists, braids and locks – are overtly or subconsciously frowned upon by some companies.
On a rainy afternoon in January, Petty, 30, a Starbucks senior sourcing analyst in Seattle, went to her hairstylist, Linda Marie Irving, for a line-up, a quick service to clean up her natural hairline. Irving has been a hairstylist for 10 years, and now runs L. Mariee Beauty Boutique at Sola Salons in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
As Irving worked on Petty’s hair, and ‘90s R&B hits by Aaliyah and Lauryn Hill bumped in the background, they talked about why hair is so significant to Black women.
Irving, 33, grew up in South Seattle working on hair, her own and her friends. On this day, she’s wearing her hair in a self-done ‘80s bob, with feathered bangs and a pop of purple lipstick. A barber’s daughter and a devoted Starbucks fan – she stops by her neighborhood store almost every day; her favorite drink is a double short white mocha with almond milk – Irving says she didn’t really understand the significance of working on Black women’s hair, even while she was going to beauty school. A few years into cutting hair, she realized her career path was about more than just creativity.
“It’s a statement of, ‘I am a Black woman and I take pride in being a Black woman by taking pride in how I present myself, taking pride in how I wear my hair,’ ” Irving says, “the hair being the crown, the hair being your cultural, social or even political representation.”
Her clients – predominantly Black women who work in corporate settings – come with a range of requests. For some, convenience is key. For others, hair is a statement. She’s a caretaker of a big responsibility in the Black community, talking to Black women about their hair and its connection to self-expression, identity, liberation and esteem.
“Some Black women want to go into the corporate world and make the statement of, ‘I’m wearing my hair natural and if you don’t accept my natural hair, then you may not completely accept me,’” Irving says. “Some Black women don’t want the questions and distractions about their hair. They want the focus to be on work. They want to be seen for their accomplishments and what they bring to the table professionally.”
What’s unique about Black hair, Irving and Petty say, is its flexibility; the textures and versatility allow Black women to wear their hair in so many different ways.
When Petty approached Irving about cutting her hair short, Irving was excited.
“It’s a sense of owning your womanhood and being brave and saying, ‘I can still look feminine, I can still rock this look, I can still exude all this femininity and not have long hair,’ ” Irving says. “When that comes into play, that’s cool to me. I embrace that.”
Unfortunately, Irving and Petty say, Eurocentric beauty standards still exist for Black women, inside and outside the Black community.
A few years after graduating from college, Petty was working at a bank. The dress code was conservative, and one day, she came to work with her hair in a natural, curly afro. Her manager asked her to wear her hair pulled back. She declined and left the bank after several months.
“You’re being told that your hair is not good enough in its natural state, you have to manipulate it,” Petty says. “I definitely think that some Black people feel they have to do that to fit in at work, to feel more acceptable.”
Petty, a mother of two, realized she was buying into that idea herself. A couple years ago, her daughter, 4 or 5 years old at the time, had started to realize her hair was different than a lot of her classmates, who are not Black.
“She began asking me if she could straighten her hair like I did sometimes,” Petty recalls. “She wanted long, straight hair like her best friend at the time and was so upset that hers was different. I made the commitment then to stop straightening my hair and show her that our hair was beautiful, regardless of what society has always told us.”
But Black women are pushing back against those Eurocentric beauty standards, and wearing hair in a natural state has become more prevalent. Irving and Petty believe that shift has been spurred by cultural awareness and acceptance in the fashion industry, and by recent social and political events.
The cut is over. Irving brushes the excess hair off Petty’s shoulder. Petty’s hair is a neat, tidy layer of small natural curls, the shortest it’s ever been.
“Cutting my hair as short as I did was scary and uncomfortable in the beginning, but for me it also represents a new beginning and feeling liberated,” Petty says. “I’ve always been told that you can’t grow without being uncomfortable. Without my hair, I feel as if I have removed an intricate part of my identity in order to make me focus on myself and come into my own.”