Black Hair in Corporate America
Unprofessional. Unkempt. Militant. Unpolished. These are some of the terms that people use when discussing natural hair in the professional / corporate space. Black hair has always been a topic of contention historically, dating back to the times of slavery, Jim Crow, up to present times. Black professionals, keenly aware of the perception that natural black hair carries, have gone to great lengths to adjust their hair styles to ensure their colleagues approval and comfort.
Black men have traded their afros and locs for bald heads, fades, and low cuts; while the women bombard their hair and scalp with harmful chemicals to "tame" their kinks, or opt to braid down their hair and cover it with sewn-in tracks or wigs. Unfortunate as it is, the black professionals' ability to achieve success hinges on their ability to make white people comfortable. While this usually means much more than just changing your hair, making these adjustments to your hair is the most visible way to accomplish this.
But why does our hair make others uncomfortable? Well, it always has... Our afros tend to conjure up images of the militant Black Panthers. And because so many people have been miseducated about what the Black Panthers really did, not only for the Black community, but for other communities as well, they hold on to the negative narratives of the Black Panthers pushed out by mainstream media.
Going back even further, though, we could reference the Tignon Laws that required black women to keep their hair covered at all times when in public. The Tignon Laws of 1786 policed black women's hair, denying black women the freedom to adorn their hair with beads and gems, and literally outlawed the glorious creative styles that were part of black culture. Of course, black women still found ways to dress up their tignons and still be fly.
While the Tignon Laws of 1786 are no longer enforced, it is still legal for companies to refuse to hire individuals based on their hair. Although they use largely ambiguous terms that allow space for plausible deniability of their racial bias, like "unprofessional", we know that the hiring decisions made based on hair styles disproportionately affect black people.
In spite of this, the number of professionals daring to wear their natural hair in corporate spaces has significantly increased over the past few years. However, these professionals do so at the possible expense of their career advancement. Some professionals who still alter their hair have even internalized some of the negative stigmas of wearing their natural hair and feel less confident in natural styles.
What's the solution? Well, that's the challenging part. This issue has deep roots and those certainly need to be addressed. I believe that more black professionals should wear their hair how they want to in corporate spaces and challenge their HR officials to enforce diversity and inclusion policies. That won't always work, so take your talents to companies where you are celebrated, not just tolerated. Or you could take the leap into entrepreneurship and create your own lane.
What do you think are some solutions?
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Definitely a common issue! Great read and I learned something about history that I wasn’t aware of.
When I was a hairstylist, I also noticed that these women were also wary of changing their style and length too often for the concerns about the conversation that would be initiated by their white colleagues.
I also think that white ppl just don’t have ANY idea how our hair is SUPPOSED to look so if it doesn’t look like theirs, it’s unprofessional smh.