Hair As Identity Menu

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You should really reflect how the client’s top executives look

“You should really reflect how the client’s top executives look.”Say what?!I was taken aback by the comment because I was dressed beautifully in a tailored suit and donned a cute natural hair style.At the time, I was working as a management consultant on a work project in one of the largest private firms in the United States.The comment came from one of my project leaders.How do you react to such a comment?Perhaps she was referring to the fact that I was wearing a red suit?Or, was she talking about my hair? That is one of the challenges of being in a society where your beauty is often devalued:you don’t know if such comments were intended to be personal and related to immutable characteristics (e.g., YOU need to have straight, long hair) or general and related to things that you can change (e.g., NO ONE should ever wear a red suit).As our conversation continued, I picked my mouth up off of the floor and realized that her comments did in fact seem to be about my hair.Wow.I took a deep breath and weighed the thoughts whirling in my mind.Should I blast her?Should I say nothing?For those who know me in a professional setting, you know that I picked a diplomatic way, but direct way, to let her know that I thought her comments were ridiculous.I said, “Wow, that’s a…different perspective.What if we were working at Black Entertainment Television?Would you be willing to shave your head and wear a short hairstyle a la Robert Johnson?”A blank stare greeted my gaze.That was the end of that. Well, at least she didn’t say anything else. But, I’m not so naive to think that her authentic beliefs were changed as a result of our exchange.

Was this a one-off situation?I think not.The article in this link suggests that other Black women have been and will be subjected to insensitive comments about their hair in the workplace: picture of the beautiful, professional Black woman was copied from the same article.

What do you think?How would you have responded to my situation?To what occurred in the article?Have you experienced such behavior in the workplace?How did you react?To those who are non-Black, how would you have responded if you witnessed this situation?

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Natural Hair and Professionalism Part 2

Once I got the big chop, I was LOVING my hair. I loved the way that the wind felt on my ears and neck; loved that I could wash my hair every day if I wanted and still take only 5 minutes to style it and look FLY; loved that I was learning about my hair, how much to pick it, brush it, oil it, I was discovering myself; loved that my face had taken center stage; loved that I was a visual testimony that natural hair is an option. I was proud of myself for doing what felt authentic to me despite societal pressures to conform to another notion of beauty.

However, I must admit that I still had my hang-ups. I was about to graduate and I was very concerned that my natural hair would hinder me at my new consulting job. Consulting was (is) a white, male-dominated industry. While everyone, including white men, must conform to workplace expectations about appearance, I was concerned that my hair might make me stand out as a black woman and suggest that I was unwilling to be a “team player”. After all, wasn’t it best to just do good work, keep my head down and blend in as much as possible? Wouldn’t my hair peg me as different from the get go? Rosette & Dumas (2007)[1] wrote an insightful paper about this issue; an excerpt from page 421 of the paper sums up a key insight:

“…for minority women in general and Black women in particular, “looking the part” at work carries the additional dimension of managing attributions, expectations, and stereotypes based solely on core aspects of their identities—the immutable characteristics of race and gender.

In isolation, Black women’s preferences to straighten their hair may seem simply to be a choice of adornment; however, when coupled with all the other available “self-improvement” choices in which they sometimes engage—such as wearing colored contacts, lightening their skin, reducing the size of their lips, and decreasing the size of their noses—it is clear that the standard of beauty in the U.S. is in direct opposition to the natural features and characteristics of most Black women.”

I’ve noted that some people think this discussion about my hair journey is highly irrelevant because “hair is just hair”. However, when considered in combination with the other “beauty” choices we make, it becomes more evident that our hair is inextricably linked to how we see ourselves and how we think others value our natural beauty. If we really, really thought that our natural beauty was highly valued would we go through such extremes to change it? If people were spending millions of dollars to ADD kink to their hair, would we feel differently about our naturally kinky hair? My point is not that women shouldn’t alter the state of their hair, just that they ask WHY they are doing so rather than assuming that that is their only, or even best, “beauty” option.

[1] Rosette, A.R. & Dumas, T. (2007). The hair dilemma: Conform to mainstream expectations or emphasize racial identity. Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 14, 407-421.

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