Natural Hair in the Workplace Is Often Looked Down Upon, but That Needs to Change — Now
"Hair should be out of the face. Neat. Polished. Put together."
These are the characteristics I read under the 'hair' section of the dress code at my first fashion luxury retail job. This was in 2011. I saw it again in 2013 when I entered the fashion corporate world, as well as when I entered the magazine industry in 2015, and again when I got my big break at a newspaper in 2018. Nowhere does it mention your hair needs to be straight, and yet it is often implied. I'm not alone, either: Black actors like Gabrielle Union have lost roles because their hair was not part of "the costume design," and Black females have had job offers rescinded or gotten sent home if they failed to adhere to unjust hair policies.
There are some protections to combat the discrimination Black women face in the workplace, like the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act. CROWN prevents enforcement of "grooming policies that claim to be race neutral, but in reality have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color." The law is a way to grant freedom to Black employees to wear their hair in natural curls, braids, dreadlocks, twists, afros, and any style they desire. In January of this year, California was the first state to pass this law and six states have followed in its footsteps.
I'm glad there is legislation in place, but there is much more work to be done. The corporate world must learn to normalize Black hair within its company culture. I wanted to learn more on how Black women view their own hair in the workplace, so I reached out to actress Olivia Battle and senior product marketing manager Amanda Stewart for tips on how to knock down societal pressures to redefine what professionalism actually looks like.
The Fear of Wearing Protective Styles To Work
Based on my own and other Black women's experiences, many employers and coworkers don't see braids or curls as neat or professional, but instead as a political or aggressive statement, or a signal that the employee doesn't want to fit in. Patricia Okonta, an attorney for NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund told USA Today that, "Hair bias often stems from stereotypes that Black hair in it's natural state is dirty or unkempt."
Unfortunately, we've been conditioned to thinking this way. Professionalism was built on European features and mannerisms, especially in corporate America, and anything outside of these 'norms' is often deemed inappropriate for the workplace. It's the reason why I get anxious introducing a new hairstyle to my office — worried that I'll get a look or the questions, "Did you get a haircut?" or "Can I touch your hair?"
Several years ago when I first entered the fashion industry, I interned at a Canadian ready-to-wear brand under the creative director. After a month of wearing my hair straight, I arrived to set in a twist out. I remember being really excited that morning with the bounce in my curls. When I walked in, I was instantly offended when the white creative director said, "Oh my gosh, I love your wild hair." Although it was intended as a compliment, referring to a Black person's hair as "wild" is inappropriate under any circumstance. We are not an artifact on display at a museum.
And my experience is not isolated. As an actress, Battle faces the struggle with her hair daily. To protect it from scene work and multiple costume changes, she tends to wear braids or wigs, but has experienced directors who have said everything from "Can you put your hair into a ponytail?" to "Did you even do your hair today?" to "Is your hair real?" White counterparts can style their hair any way they please and people don't seem to question if it's real or not. But for Black people, that line is too easily blurred.
These microaggressions are often unintentional and go largely unnoticed by everyone but the person on the receiving end.
These microaggressions, or subtle verbal and non verbal put downs of Black traits, are often unintentional and go largely unnoticed by everyone but the person on the receiving end. In other words: they stick with you. The deliverer doesn't understand the implications of their words, and it's really hard to unlearn this narrative when it's been forced on you for so long. For me, it's the reason I debated the big chop a whole year before actually committing. Pondering how scary it would feel to show up to work as myself, instead of this culture-pleasing employee I had morphed into.
Prior to the cut, I would straighten my hair multiple times a week. When my hair broke off from too much heat damage, I was forced to wear it in braids. Attempting to conserve money, I did them myself. I felt nervous to wear these makeshift braids to work, in fear of how harshly I would be judged. It took me back to grade school when I would beg my mom to wear my hair wet with conditioner to school. That was the only way for my curls to look hydrated and — to my young eyes — beautiful. Luckily, my mom always said no. She understood the beauty of natural hair and more importantly, she knew Black hair can't be exposed to all elements and weather. That is why we, as Black women, enjoy protective styles — it does just that: protects our hair.
Why Black Employees Shouldn't Need To Defend Their Hairstyles
While sheltering in place, I've found myself wearing more protective styles. More braids, cornrows, and bantu knots. I've gotten to a point where I really like what my hair looks like in these protective styles, often thinking, "Wow, this is cute. I can totally wear this to work." There is something wrong about that statement. I had to reassess why I was perfecting these styles in private, to later go on 'display' in the office. Why was I putting in so much work to have these hairstyles 'work ready?'
Similar to code switching, or the act of filtering your behavior and language, Black women mute themselves to make colleagues feel more comfortable. Up until last year, I would straighten my hair for every job interview. As a fashion editor, I'm very familiar with the industry standards. The fashion industry has a specific look they recruit: thin, white, and straight hair. Fashion runways have proven this to be the winning equation. Since I am not white nor, by fashion standards, thin, I'd straighten my hair and then put it in a low bun or ponytail, to convey an "expert in my field" appearance and get my foot in the door. After cutting all my hair off in 2018, I quickly started examining this twisted way of thinking and formed my own opinions based on my comfort and ideas of professionalism.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists wrote, "Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do." I decided to do the big chop because it was inherently clear that my hair did not want to be straight anymore. Trying to force it out of it's natural element became pointless and exhausting. Why was I trying so hard to fit in? Since cutting my hair, I've felt an overwhelming confidence and beauty. I realized I was playing a part that was serving everyone but me.
"I was always skeptical to wear braids to work, and I'm just tired of it," Stewart told me as she recounted why she felt the need to look put together all the time. "I should be able to do what I want with my hair without getting a million questions for it. If that means my hair is in 'neat' braids or bouncy curls, that is up to me — it's not my job to come to work to please you."
Like many naturals, she questioned going the extra mile to make others feel comfortable. It takes a lot of energy to do that and is mentally taxing. We've learned that we don't need to conform, and we've decided to not lower to the status quo, but raise it.
How Corporations — and You — Can Do Better
When Black women showcase multiple hairstyles in the work week, try to avoid questioning if the hair is real or commenting at all. Even comments you think are harmless, like "I barely recognized you," are to suppress and make us feel small.
The corporate world must do better at creating a workplace that grants freedom to all employees. The culture grips onto Eurocentric beauty standards, making it hard for Black females to live in their natural hair truths. They must relook at policies and decide if certain standards affect Black people more. And if the answer is yes, they must rewrite them. I refuse to think the way my hair naturally grows isn't as professional as someone else's.