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Issue 17 Out Now


Black Women's Hair In The Workplace

“Wow, I love your hair, it’s so…cool!The lady continued to stare as she got closer and closer. My Black girl senses were tingling and I felt her presence hovering over me like a ghost as I sat at my computer. “Ma’am you’re in my business, don’t do that”; is what unfiltered me wanted to say to this lady invading my space, but I’m on the clock and it’s only 7:33 in the morning. Sadly, this wasn’t a new uncomfortable feeling. I prep myself for the hair obstacles at my job almost daily and hope to stay professional. Black women’s hair textures allow the opportunity for versatility in their styles. Women, such as myself, utilize this super power to undergo any type of look. In the same breath, Black women’s hair is the most regulated and judged in a workplace environment.

Depending on how I wear my hair at work, I’ve picked up on certain mannerisms and behaviors of my colleagues and the people I service. A simple, middle part sew in probably is the most under the radar type of look. Doesn’t draw as much attention, questions, comments, or people itching to touch. Switching up to wearing my natural hair in a big puff, I’ll get comments such as: “So when are you going to do your hair?” From whom you might ask? A Black man. Yes, I said it. Discrimination and micro-aggressions towards Black women and their hair is not limited to our White co-workers, colleagues and friends. This behavior stems from other minority groups including those within the Black community.

Let’s dissect this a little more shall we? Micro-aggressions, are statements or actions of indirect discrimination against members of a marginalized group. Whenever a micro-aggression occurs it is usually unintentional but is still just as offensive as outright discrimination. Presenting a compliment with a backdoor, or subtly offensive, remark or action is the pattern we casually experience in public. It happens so quick, sometimes we don’t even catch it until later, after analyzing the statement while maintaining the professional persona we have locked in. When my coworker complimented my hair, I did appreciate the compliment, but where did the micro-aggression come in? When she decided to get close and stare that’s when it became offensive. Would she have stared at my hair like that if I were White? No. When the man asked me “when was I going to do my hair”, knowing him personally, I knew he meant no harm and enjoyed seeing me change my hair often like I usually do, but that was offensive.

Black hairstyles are a proud representation of long, deeply rooted culture. Over centuries, these hairstyles have been ridiculed for being “unruly”, “unprofessional” and “ghetto”. The Tignon Law was passed in Louisiana, enforcing women of African descent to wear a tignon in public to cover their hair, whether enslaved or free. In result, women of color made their tignons into bold fashion statements in rebellion of the law that policed their look to prevent them from drawing too much attention. The Tignon Law is just one of many examples of laws and policies enforced from the slave trade to modern day. The Black woman in the workforce jungle faces challenges that begin with landing the job. Once she makes it through the gate that may out-rule her through prejudice, she continues and stays abreast in her position in opposition to an overflowing fountain of preconceived thoughts about her.

Coming from a Black woman who wears her hair differently quite frequently, I’ve become acquainted with recognizing, addressing, and dismissing offensive comments and actions in regards to my hair for every style. I have provided tips to help you identify, educate, and navigate derogatory and uncomfortable situations.

  1. How do I know when to be offended?

The question may seem simple but in the workplace, with others who are of a different ethnicity, race or culture you have to analyze cautiously. Some people are honestly clueless and curious but that does not mean excuse their words or measures. Kindly inform them why you are offended and set solid boundaries. If the action or comment is not versatile to every ethnic group it should not be said in specificity toward you. Hypothetically, If someone says “I love your hair, It’s short and cute but does it ever grow”, you COULD accept the compliment to stay cordial and let them know you were offended by the last phrase. “I appreciate that, yes all hair grows at it’s own pace, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t ask me questions like that”. It is up to your discretion to determine to educate them, but be aware that you are NOT obligated to. “I appreciate that. My hair is very curly so it shrinks sometimes in its natural state, however it grows.” An acceptable answer could cut straight to the point and redirect the conversation. “My hair isn’t an appropriate topic to discuss in the workplace, that’s offensive.” Respectfully.

2. Know what to expect.

Although, we shouldn’t have to…we must brace ourselves for potential mishaps to avoid being surprised and placed out of your character. They already think you’re bound to have an attitude, so don’t give them what they’re looking for (although they probably deserve it). Be prepared for mixed feelings in your workplace, especially if you stand out more. Being unique, bold AND Black draws attention in and outside of professional settings. Thoroughly understand your policies and know workforce laws according to your area and keep them as a reference, always. Approach every uncomfortable situation with caution while remaining true to yourself.

3. Never tone down to blend in.

With respect to the appropriate attire for your job description, wear your hair how it best expresses you. If you want to be short and sassy, DO IT! If you want to rock your bundles one day and rock your curls the next, do it without question. Protective styles or if you love a perm, do as you please because you are an example for the next Black girl behind you that still is navigating herself through a twisted society still learning to appreciate her beauty. Wear your crowns proudly and wait for the world to catch up later.

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