December 23, 2014

Embracing Natural Hair in the Workplace: Hair and the Hustle

 Photo via Elizabeth Dungan

Natural hair in the workplace is a discussion I haven’t had in quite some time. In all honesty, I’ve almost completely forgotten about (ignored? remained indifferent to?) outsiders’ perceptions and the intersections of me, my professionalism, and my physical presentation – but I was reminded of it all last night.

Read On!>>>
Thanks to Toronto’s humidity and recent torrential rains, I haven’t really been fighting whatever it is that my hair wants to do. A dry twist out from Sunday has grown into a majestic explosion of strawberry blondish kinks and curls that stretch for the sky instead of swinging down low, and I’m rollin’ with it. Some days, my hair will accept slight taming with a bit of water and a few bobby pins. Other days, my hair literally spits the bobby pins out onto the bathroom floor before I finish getting dressed. Today was the latter, so I went about my day and night with the big-ass ‘fro I’ve come to know and love.

My dope, smart, and hilarious cousin and her wife are moving away at the end of the month, and last night I met up with them and their friends to send them off well. It was a compliment from a new homie named Zee that got the conversation flowing.

She loved my hair. She asked how long I had been natural. She asked how my hair was received at work. And it was at that moment that I realized…I had pretty much stopped caring about what most people had to say.

During the time that I’ve worn my hair natural, I’ve held fairly senior executive/management positions. In my transitioning days, friends, family, and that little voice in my head all wondered if this new choice would have a negative impact on the way I was viewed at work. I moved from relaxed hair to kinky twists to a TWA with trepidation, always waiting for the moment where a comment or look would confirm that, yes – this choice DID have a negative impact on how I was perceived. It never came from the people I thought it would come from (see: older White men in leadership positions), but when I decided to apply for an internal promotion, I definitely got an earful from an unexpected demographic (see: other Black women). The position I applied for was a senior client-facing role that required the utmost in professionalism. If I had a dollar for every time a Black woman told me I’d never get the position “with your hair lookin’ like…THAT” – I’d have a lot of dollars. Despite their thoughts, I did win the position and went on to enjoy my new role. However, the idea of natural hair and professional perception stayed on my mind.

For my first few client meetings, I’d conveniently be in the mood for a flat iron. I didn’t want to admit that I was afraid to present myself to my clients with a head full of carefully coiffed kinks and curls, but that’s exactly what it was. Deep down, I knew I was concerned about “scaring” people or drawing extra attention to myself, and wanted to control the one thing I could to avoid all of that. Due to my name and telephone work voice, most people assumed that I was a White woman. When they’d later meet a 6ft tall Black executive who was often around the same age as their children, the reactions are jarring enough. I didn’t want my hair to be an additional She’s Different! red flag, so I consistently controlled that aspect.

Since those days, I’ve grown. I’ve learned to become much more comfortable with myself – the girl who’s almost always the tallest, youngest, brownest person in the room. Once I was able to accept and embrace the things I can’t change about myself, I learned to accept and embrace the thing I willingly chose to change – my hair. My hair has become part of the package of Bee – a thing I’m recognized by and known for, a thing that just is. I’ve changed my mindset around natural hair and professionalism, and no longer go to the default “straight hair” setting for formal or professional moments. I now know that my natural texture can be polished just as much as it can be wild and free, and find that my increased self-confidence hasn’t allowed much room to think otherwise.

Do I get questions? Sure. Do I get stares? Hell yes. Do I get people who are distracted by my hair and talk to my tuft of curls instead of making eye contact? Yup. Do those things make me say “Damn – next time I’m just flat ironing this sh*t and calling it a day!” or make me second-guess the way I chose to present myself? Not anymore. I’ve been known to stop business discussions and address the curly elephant in the room. I’ve been known to politely inform someone that the timing or phrasing of their question/comment is inappropriate and keep it movin’. I’ve been known to walk into business meetings with a sun-blocking Afro and not have anyone question my abilities or professionalism. I’ve grown lucky enough to reach a point where I am not oblivious to the implications of being a Black woman with natural hair in the workplace, but I’m not controlled by them either. If anyone has ever assessed the intersections of me, my professionalism, and my hair – and had a negative reaction – I’ve been none the wiser, and they clearly haven’t been powerful enough to stop me from anything I’ve ever wanted to achieve. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

How do you view natural hair in the workplace? Have you ever felt the need to conform or change your look to a more “acceptable” one?

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