All too often in the natural hair world, we find ourselves discussing the inevitable topic: Is natural hair suitable for the workplace? As a woman who has worn her hair naturally for over 4 years, and has remained a professional in the traditional corporate and non-profit worlds, I’ve grown somewhat tired of the conversation. However, a couple of recent incidents brought to light a different side of the argument – one that I feel warrants discussion, or at least the opportunity to vent.
When debating natural hair in the workplace, we’re often focused on the negative – namely the thought that natural hair cannot be presentable or professional, and that straight or tamed hair (bunned, for instance) is the only acceptable option. We focus on the fears that White bosses and colleagues will not take us seriously – that they will feel our expression of self is militant, defiant, or otherwise disconcerting. We speak of the surprise that many of us feel when we face negativity from our Black coworkers instead – whether from older Black women still living with the residual effects of colonialism, or younger ones who ascribe to one example of what is beautiful. I am personally always prepared to deal with outright rudeness, but I’m consistently taken aback by back-handed compliments. You know the kind – compliments from colleagues who want to be progressive, but come off condescending and ignorant. How do you deal with that?
On a day where I wore a beautiful head wrap to work (to stay fashionable while my twists dried), I received a ton of compliments from colleagues. I knew it was a look that they hadn’t seen before, but the surprise was all mine when one smiled and said “You look lovely! Like a young Aunt Jemima!” Another day, when I was rocking a fierce curly Bantu knot-out, I had a colleague marvel about how my curls looked so different from day to day. “I really like it like this,” she said. “It looks very neat – you know, like ‘tidy’.”
Being told that my hair looked “neat” and “tidy” was not a compliment, and made me wonder if secret office conversations had taken place on days when my hair was deemed less than. I am a professional woman, and carry myself as such at all times – so receiving that person’s seal of approval was more than unnecessary. All too often, I encounter people of different cultures and backgrounds who have ascribed to the notion that straight hair is the default, and anything else needs to be measured against the norm to determine its acceptability. Kinky, curly hair does not require a blessing and a prayer to be professional. Once people remove the default settings from their minds and accept that we all have different hair, different choices, and different options – those “neat” and “tidy” slick compliments won’t be required.
The Aunt Jemima comment can frankly be attributed to ignorance, laziness, and self-absorption. It reminded me of being in elementary school – when my hair was braided, I was told I looked just like Brandy. When my mom came to the school for one of my plays, friends said she looked like Oprah. I look nothing like Brandy. My mom looks nothing like Oprah. However, if those are the only references that people have for Black women, that’s what you’ll get. The morning when I decided to rock the headwrap, I left my house feeling so regal and elegant – you basically could not have told me a damn thing. To have that wonderful feeling reduced to being compared to a Mammy archetype made me feel like a walking minstrel show. Clearly, the compliment-giver had no frame of reference for a Black woman wearing a headwrap other than Aunt Jemima – and that’s unfortunate.
Just in case people aren’t aware: a simple “You look great!” or “I like your hairstyle today!” is good enough. Quit while you’re ahead.
In the scenarios I mentioned, both back-handed compliment-givers expected a gracious “thank you” to escape from my lips. I think the Aunt Jemima comment threw me so far off guard that I didn’t even reply. My response to the “neat and tidy” remark dripped with sarcasm - “Well, thank you – I generally make it a priority to look neat and tidy before I leave the house. Thanks for noticing the effort today!” Is it necessary to return ignorance with outright rudeness every time? I don’t think so. Are slick, sarcastic responses useful? They can be. Should you take the high road and use that teachable moment to educate the compliment-giver on their poor choice of wording? Maybe. In my opinion, different scenarios call for different responses, and that’s OK.
There’s nothing like the moment when you receive a compliment that gives you pause and makes you stop in your tracks before you can say “thank you.” I have concluded that until there are more representations of Black women in mainstream media, until there is a greater acceptance of Black beauty in all of its ranges, and until people really start thinking before they speak – I’ll be guaranteed to get many more faux-compliments that will require addressing. I guess that’s just the way it is.