Dec 10, 2010

Posted by in Black Hair Politics, Natural Hair Care, Pop Culture | 28 Comments

Natural Hair and the Workplace: Flippin’ the Script

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It’s an all too familiar story. One day, a bright young woman approached a very prestigious law firm with the hopes of snagging her dream job, in spite of her natural hair. After entering the lobby, Jessica rushed past the looks of disapproval and the curious hands that reached to touch her “exotic” strands. She made it onto the elevator and with the press of a button she was headed to the top! After she got off, she passed a poster that read “Glamour Magazine’s Don’ts of Corporate Fashion” which featured a large picture of a natural-haired woman in the center, and a caption that read “EXTREME” underneath it. Jessica rolled her eyes, extremely, as she made her way to the receptionist.  She gave the woman her name and interview time. Then she quietly reassured herself, “This is my time; I’m ready!”

She entered the room and introduced herself with a firm handshake, confident that her experience would speak louder than her hairstyle. As she and the interviewers began the usual song and dance, her would-be boss seemed distracted and the HR Manager kept smiling nervously.  They both couldn’t stop staring at her hair. They ended the interview with a polite “we’ll call you, don’t call us” tone. After she left the room, the black HR Manager spoke freely, “I’m not a racist, but I don’t understand why she chose to sabotage herself with such a wild, radical hairdo? I’m all for being yourself, but that was just ridiculous. It wasn’t even in a style! I’m not even sure it was clean.” he lamented. The boss chimed in, “She certainly could not meet our clients looking like that. Nothing about her look said professional to me. It’s clear that making a militant, political statement is more important to her than being a part of this team!”  They both nodded and the HR Manager closed Jessica’s file.

She exited the building feeling dejected, but not confused. At home, she looked at the reflection of her long blonde hair in the mirror and her ocean blue eyes gave way to a river of tears. “Why was I cursed with boring hair that lies flat against my head? Why don’t I have good hair,” she shouted. Despite her insecurity, she knew that wearing her hair the way it naturally grew couldn’t logically be wrong. She wished she could appeal to the black privileged class, and the other natural-hair haters, with reason. She’d tell them that putting dangerous chemicals on her head damaged her hair and her spirit, and that for her, getting braids or dredlocks* could take as long as 18 hours. She’d show them last night’s episode of the news that highlighted the health disparities Whites face as a result of choosing to maintain their kinky strands over exercising. As her mind wandered, she lost track of whether she was still trying to convince Blacks that her hair was both professional and beautiful, or herself. With a sigh of resignation, she uttered the same words her grandmother said many years before, “Maybe in a different world, at a different time,” as she reached for the kinky perm.


When the roles are reversed, and the kinky hair is on the other head, the arguments against natural hairstyles in the workplace read like something out of a bad screenplay; they sound ridiculous. Simply put, wherever a white person is allowed to let their hair flow freely, it only makes sense for Blacks to be able to do the same. And yet, here in America, for the most part, looking professional seems to still be synonymous with having stereotypically White features and hairstyles, or at least trying as hard as possible to obtain them. As Oni Holley’s “Loc’d Out: Is Natural Hair a Hindrance to Professional Success” illustrates, even some black folks still agree that it’s inappropriate to leave one’s tightly coiled hair out while on the clock. For these reasons, there comes a time in every kinky worker’s life when he or she must ask the dreaded question, “Will my natural hair hold me back,” and with good cause.

Despite the fact that discrimination based on one’s hair texture is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the numerous court cases filed since the law’s passage, and those featured in Holley’s article, suggest that this sort of discrimination is still a big issue. For instance, there was the federal case filed in Ohio by a Rastafarian cable installer who was told by his boss that his locks seemed, “radical”, and that because of his hairstyle, he wouldn’t go anywhere in the company or in his industry. I bet you can guess how that case turned out. It was dismissed! Similarly, Phyliss Jones-Butler also sued her employer, an Illinois-based consulting firm, because she repeatedly lost promotions, pay raises, and assignments to less qualified white employees, despite a stellar record. Her white supervisor reacted so negatively to her appearance that Phyliss stopped wearing her braids all together and relented by straightening her hair.

And yet, anchorwoman Richelle Ritchie’s recent on-air leap into the natural hair world, and the subsequent ratings boost she received, have many questioning if Blacks’ assumptions about natural hair in the workplace are outdated. After all, Ursula Burns, the ninth most powerful woman in the world according to TIME Magazine,  Claudia Gordon, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Dr. Mae Jemison’s vintage NASA photo are stunning reminders that more black women are achieving unprecedented success than ever before with natural hair!

So what’s a natural or an aspiring natural sister to do? I posed this question to a mentor of mine, a self-professed natural hair enthusiast. He confessed that he once advised a braided sister to take down and straighten her hair when she went to her next interview. I was astonished that he didn’t tell her to vow, by every braid on her head, to be herself at all times even if it meant losing this one opportunity.  He explained that the promotion and potential $25,000 raise meant more to her, and all of the future people of color she could mentor, than wearing her hair in braids for one day. She followed his advice and got the job. I don’t know if changing her hairstyle did the trick, but I do know that she’s now rocking her braids in an even higher executive-level position making a six-figure salary. The question is, does conforming to the status quo, even if only for a day, give legitimacy to the idea that straight hair is more professional? Is it more important for Blacks to focus on getting ahead now or to challenge bias wherever they find it in the hopes of securing a better tomorrow?

In today’s economy, when some families’ livelihoods hang in the balance by a strand, I won’t give advice about how (if at all) black breadwinners should sport their naturals in the office.  It’s clear to me that although progress has been made, the level of bias against kinky hair can vary widely depending on the region, industry and company in which you work. So, that’s a personal decision each person will have to make. Luckily, there are many alternative styling methods, weaves, and hair pieces that allow black women to achieve these looks without compromising their health or spending countless hours in the salon. More importantly, I do believe that sooner or later workplace culture in America will evolve to fully embrace its tightly curled talent. When it does, we’ll have to thank those who defiantly sport their locks, braids, and Afros today for bravely flippin’ the script!

What’s the best and worst natural hair advice or work experience you have ever heard of?

*- I choose to use the alternate spelling, dredlocks, to take away the negative connotation associated with the word dreadlocks (i.e. I dread, dreadful dreadlocks).

Just for fun, here’s a funny commercial compliments of!

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