There's No Reason Why Black Women Should Not Be Able to Wear Our Natural Hair at Work

By Anna Gibson

News anchor Angela Green was recently in the spotlight because of a video she posted on her Facebook page. In it, Green gives her personal advice to an intern with blond curly hair. She suggests that the intern was told that her hair was too “distracting” and “unprofessional.” In response to this, Green suggested that the intern straighten her hair just this once for a school assignment to please everyone involved.

The reactions about this advice ranged from outrage to applause. Some women acknowledged her alleged practicality. They noted that the ability to be mindful of your image in the workplace is key to your advancement, especially as Black women are already heavily discriminated against in these settings. Why give your superiors something else to complain about?

Others felt that a Black woman straightening her hair was considered “copping out.” Yielding to these workplace microaggressions about how we present ourselves means discarding a crucial piece of who we are as a people. I understand the former point, but the latter is far more compelling because Black hair is central to Black culture.

If you think about natural hair, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Most people would imagine dreadlocks, Afros, or intricately woven braids. However, in order to understand the push back against Black women’s natural hair, we have to try and think about how our society determines what’s “beautiful” and acceptable.

A culture’s standard of beauty can come in a variety of forms, depending on the country you compare yourself to. In India, we may find women wearing saris and bindis in commercials. In Saudi Arabia, newscasters may wear hijabs, etc.

In America, our ideal of beauty is typically a white woman with straight hair. We see this everywhere from commercials to models on the runway, TV shows and billboards, which overwhelmingly adhere to that standard. The further you deviate from this ideal, the more undesirable you appear according to societal norms.

With that being the case, we have to ask ourselves a few questions. How does American deal with the outliers, the ones who deviate too far from the status quo? Who are considered outliers? What occurs when society’s conception of beauty is disrupted by negative perception regarding a particular hairstyle?

Black women are, and have always been, the outliers. We, more than anyone else, know how it feels to deal with intersectional discrimination, which tends to bleed into every aspect of our lives including the workplace. Traditionally, outliers (i.e people who are outside of society’s normative standard of beauty) are forced to conform to what society deems acceptable or risk being shunned. This is what Green was attempting to convey to the intern. The intern’s hair stands out and is considered “distracting” simply because it’s outside of society’s traditional standard of beauty.

I got a chance to talk to Tiffany Coleman, co-founder of Reise’s Pieces Boutique, and hair stylist @hairbytiffanyb, who had something to say about the lack of professionalism on the staff’s part and how inappropriate their actions were. She says:

“Her hair shouldn’t have been an issue. Professionalism in a workplace should only be referenced when it comes to her competence/skill. Had professional appearance been a problem, we’d have to make it fair across the board and put a mandate in place regarding ANY physical appearance be it makeup, hair, etc. How people wear their hair is an art and it’s the only freedom we have in the workplace besides makeup.”

Of course, there had to be SOME reason the intern was singled out. Obviously our hair doesn’t naturally straighten; it stands up and stands out. Standing out in society, much less the workplace, isn’t always rewarded. Because the intern deviated too far from the classical conception of beauty, she kept being reprimanded, even in the subtlest of ways.

There’s also a deeper, more nuanced reason that mainstream society seems repelled by natural hair. Traditional styles such as dreadlocks and afros are often connected to militant movements. Many women in the Black Power Movement during the 60s wore afros as a symbol of defiance. Back then, our hairstyles were intertwined with our ability to fully embrace ourselves. Mainstream society bore witness to these powerful Black women, who were educated, armed with guns, and ready to defend themselves and their families, wearing these hairstyles. Back then, embracing your natural hair signified rebellion against society and centuries of self-hatred that have been ingrained in us since slavery. Because of this, society still thinks of our natural hair in terms of being a disruption against the status quo and a hostile force, especially in the work environment.

In short, while Green’s advice might have been understandable in the context of advancing oneself in a predominantly white workplace, it does more harm than good. It forces us to stay complacent in a system that continues to discriminate against us everyday. It would be better to assert our culture and face discrimination head on than continue to yield to unequal societal standards. Embracing our hair means embracing ourselves, and we need to fight for the right to show up exactly as we are in the workplace.

Photo: Facebook Video Screenshot

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University who hopes to create a safe place for the marginalized to tell their stories. You can reach her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa and on Facebook where she’s hiding under the name Anna Gibson.

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