Natural Hair in the Corporate World

 Is there a Place for It?

by Susan Walker of Earthtones Naturals 

I attended a natural hair party a few weeks ago and one of the women made a comment that struck me as interesting.  We were discussing products and she informed me that her hair needs to be “neat” for work. She works as a graphic designer in a corporate office. When I asked her to clarify what she meant by “neat” she told me that she couldn’t have her hair “out” and made a wide gesture with her hands indicating that it couldn’t be big. Her hair was blow-dried straight and flat-ironed to encourage the sleek, straight look she was going for.

My conversation with her had me thinking about my own natural hair experience and working in a corporate office with other individuals who are not black. I realized that at no point in time did my boss, the CEO of the company, or anyone in Human Resources ever say to me that my hair had to be styled a certain way. In fact, when I did the big chop a few years ago and feared going into the office with my textured hair, my mind was instantly put at ease when I received compliments about my new look. It was then that I realized that a lot of time we as naturals often put parameters and limitations on how we think our hair should look and be styled. I realized very quickly that I had the problem with how my hair looked thinking that it wasn’t “professional” enough, inappropriate or too “wild” for the workplace.

Why is it that natural hair appears to be looked upon unfavourably in corporate North America? I understand the negative stigma attached to natural hair historically and the psychological vestiges of slavery when it comes to hair types and texture. And I guess some of us have been taught – either through media images, society and members of our family – to loathe the appearance of natural textured hair and have affixed negative adjectives to it. Historically when black hair was straightened we were seen as more likeable and agreeable, and less unruly and uncivilized. Much like skin tone, the more “white” we appeared, the more comfortable others were with us and the more accepted we felt. My husband likes to say that relaxed hair makes Caucasians relaxed. While there is likely some truth in this statement in the 21st century, I wonder if it doesn’t have more of an effect of making us (the wearer) relaxed around other people who don’t have textured hair. It’s sad really but feedback from other naturals has indicated that other black women are more critical and negative of natural hair than white people. Is this the self-loathing that is so apparent with us or is something else at play here? I’m not sure. A controversial decision was made by the dean of Hampton University Business school to ban the wearing of dreadlocks and cornrows by men in the classroom due to the “unprofessional” look of these styles. He defended his decision by stating that the ban has been effective at helping graduates find work. Is he right or wrong, I don’t know. But the decision goes back to what hairstyles are deemed to be acceptable and professional in the workplace, especially the corporate environment.

It still takes work to appreciate, be thankful and grateful for my hair texture. The availability of hair products and resources that assist in the proper care of our hair has helped tremendously. And because of the number of women deciding to embrace their natural hair textures, there is strength in numbers. We still have a lot of work to do to see our hair as an adornment of beauty rather than something to be scorned at and tamed. I love my hair because of its versatility; I can wear it straight and sleek or big and curly, and everything in between if I choose to. I see all of these styles as a representation of who I am and my hair hasn’t been a deterrent to me achieving success and advancement in my career. However I understand that this may not be the case with every woman who chooses to go back to her natural roots. I believe that this inability to wear our hair in specific natural styles can be an obstacle to the emotional advancement of women who are really trying to love themselves completely. I could be wrong but I definitely think it’s worth the discussion.

What do you think? Is wearing your hair natural looked down upon in your workplace?

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