I recently came across an article from back in September about a black female news anchor in North Carolina who advised a 19-year-old intern to straighten her natural hair in order to be less of a “distraction” in the studio. (See the article and video clip here: bit.ly/20UcwxN.)
As a young professional, the issue of natural hair acceptance in the workplace is important to me. The idea that black women (and men) are having their competency as professionals questioned due to their hair texture is irritating. Admittedly, I haven’t always felt this way. There was a time (embarrassingly enough, up until rather recently) where I might have agreed with the news anchor’s sentiments. But, as my favorite podcasters, the Bodega Boys, like to say, “God’s working on all of us,” and I’ve grown to think differently on the topic.
Although I feel passionately about natural hair acceptance in the workplace, I haven’t actually ever been pressured by an employer to alter my hair. To be transparent about my experiences, I’ll share my background in professional settings. I’ve mostly worked in a “student worker” capacity as both an undergraduate and graduate student. I held work study, tutoring, research assistant, and teaching assistant positions that were part time, flexible, and had absolutely zero requirements for how I dressed. My first real job out of grad school is in an office with mostly other people of black/African American descent. It’s also not a setting that is very strict about hair styles. Colleagues in my office wear anything from box braids, to kinky styles, to headwraps with little fuss.
But, I can’t say that the idea of professionalism related to my hair hasn’t been internalized by me on some level. My hair’s appearance is something I am very conscious about when choosing a hair style for the work week. I have hesitated a time or two to rock a particular style to work, or decided against wearing a style altogether, opting for one that is a bit “safer” (i.e., less big, less kinky, or less frizzy).
When I do take risks with my hair at work, I question it. For instance, I have worn my full afro to work exactly 3 times, and I remember feeling self-conscious each time, wondering if someone would point it out– point me out.
As I said, thankfully my office is not strict about hair styles, but I do feel an internal pressure at times because society has taught me to question whether my natural hair is acceptable in a professional setting, whether or not my deviation from the “norm” (straight hair) is too much of a distraction.
If you are someone who is dealing with pressure (either internally or maybe from your employer) to alter your natural hair for the purpose of appearing more professional, there are two things that come to my mind. The first is that if the only thing your employer takes an issue with in regards to your performance is your natural hair, then you should consider whether that employer is right for you. Does this place deserve your hard work and dedication when they clearly discriminate against you for something you cannot control? I realize that people’s lives are often not conducive to being able to pick up and quit a job so easily, but I think it’s still a question worth asking.
Second, understand that natural hair absolutely is acceptable in the workplace, despite what a few bigots might have to say! I am inspired daily by naturalistas in professional settings proudly showcasing their kinks, curls, and naps. The lovely ladies behind @officialcorporatechic, @itsreallyrelle, and @corporatekinks are just a few of my motivators that help me feel confident and comfortable rocking my natural at work.
So, although natural hair is not fully accepted by everyone in professional settings, the good news is that there are clearly spaces where it is accepted. If you are in a job now that isn’t accepting of your hair, look for a new job! Find an office that will accept you or get into a career field that will be more open to your personal choices related to your hair. And turn to your network, either through the natural hair community, or with family and friends, for support or inspiration.
Your hair is a part of your identity, and you should never feel afraid or ashamed to embrace it, even at work!