My Black Hair in Corporate America

by Queen Muse

I knew I had wowed them. I showed up for the job interview five minutes early wearing a classic black and white dress suit, lengthened to the knee, and a pair of black patty melts. My hair, though braided, was in what appeared to be a curly weave style. You could barely tell they were braids. As the interview progressed, I watched as my potential new bosses smiled, shook my hand and gave nods of approval, clearly delighted that my appearance was as impressive as my credentials on paper.

Three days later I got the call. They wanted to hire me. They made their offer and I gladly accepted. I was to start the job in two weeks.

In that two weeks time I'd worked out, gone swimming, and done a number of other activities that tend to affect the texture of some black women's hair. Between the perspiration and the humidity, my curly braids had had it. Three days before I was to start the job, I took my braids out. Before washing my hair I looked in the mirror and observed what I thought was the cutest natural afro style I had ever seen. My hair had reached a length and texture that I was so pleased with and I felt excited to share my new found style with the world.

But then there was the job issue.

As I loooked at myself in the mirror, admiring the image before me, I began to wonder if my new bosses would do the same. Would they still want the woman who looked great on paper without her conservative curls? Would they be shocked if I showed up on my first day looking differently than I'd looked on the interview?

Perhaps my questions were premature, impertinent even. Nonetheless, in one swift move, I went to the store, bought the curly weave I'd used before and began braiding it into my hair.

While it is quite possible that my fear of losing my new employers' acceptance was a bit irrational, my worrisome thoughts about how they'd perceive my hairstyle change was anything but.

My experiences as a black woman with naturally nappy hair in corporate America have been tumultuous. While I've worn natural styles with pride in my younger years, it wasn't until I entered the corporate workforce that I began to develop shameful feelings about my hair.

In subtle and overt ways, corporate America reminded me that when it came to hair, straightened and flat was okay, and anything else was not. I'd need only look at the national landscape to see that very few African-American female corporate executives or anchors working for major networks went au naturel in their roles. Whether they'd succumbed to their own fears and adopted conservative permed styles under pressure or by choice may never be known. But seeing the likes of Tamron Hall or Robin Roberts make news headlines for wearing their hair natural just confirms how novel the idea is.

In my personal experience, job after job gave me the reminder that my hair was not welcomed. In some instances, the message was delivered directly from supervisors' mouths, other times it was delivered in companywide emails filled with coded language about 'appropriate' professional appearance. Every time, it stung like salt being poured into a fresh wound.

I encountered so few black women brave enough to come to work as their natural selves, and I was no exception. I once worked for a corporate establishment that referred to my afro style as 'potentially distracting' to my co-workers. The policy the company subsequently put in place--barring everything from 'ostentatious' hair styles to 'large' earrings and jewelry--left me scarred with one impression: being me and being corporate are two different things. So, I tucked away my hoop earrings and traded them for studs; I chose one hairstyle, braids tamely tucked in a bun, and I never changed it again; but I was never able to reconcile why that had to be true.

Why does wearing my hair the way it grows out of my head make me less professional?

I've never been provided an answer to this question.

But something beautiful happened when I contacted my new employer. After wrestling with the decision for some time, I decided to send an e-mail prior to my first day. In it, I asked questions about the dress code and informed my employer that, despite the fact that they'd met me while I was wearing a weave, I would be wearing my natural hair to work.

Yes, it is baffling that I even felt the need to send the message, but my past experience had prompted me to be precautious when it came to my hair.

In part, my employer's response to my e-mail read, "We're looking forward to having you in our office...feel free to wear your hair any way you prefer..."

This may seem simple, but for a black woman who has been silently tortured for years because of her hair, it was such a pivotal moment. I realized that by declaring rather than asking if my natural hair was acceptable, I liberated myself. I found peace with the fact that my hair was my hair, and not only did corporate America need to accept it, I needed to accept it too.

My employers' expression of acceptance helped to suppress my fears. It gave me hope that one day, black women like myself will find employers that value and accept us based on what's inside of our heads rather than what's on top of them. Most importantly, I learned to accept my natural self, unapologetically.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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