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Why black hair is a workplace issue

October 09, 2020 - 1454 views

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Why black hair is a workplace issue

Black women are often judged by different standards in the workplace. By openly talking about this dynamic, we can combat ignorance and change attitudes.

If Black hair could speak, it would tell a tale of comedy, romance and horror.

Hair is an opportunity to express personality and style. Yet as Black women, we learn that our hair isn’t a matter of whimsical choice but of strategic management. While this issue also affects Black men, it’s a particular pain point for Black women. While our families and allies instill in us the belief that our natural features and hair are beautiful, in our struggle to fit in at work, many of us feel obliged to style our hair to conform to European standards.

When we don’t, our hair becomes a workplace issue. New research finds that survey participants asked to screen potential job candidates assign lower scores to Black women with natural hair in the areas of competence and professionalism than those with straightened hair, particularly in industries where norms dictate a more conservative appearance.

What’s really at stake

Black women’s hair is often the subject of comments from non-Black co-workers. One colleague recalls that when she changed her hairstyle from braids to a slicked-down bun, she encountered a co-worker who offered, “Now you look neat for work.” Another recounts a senior-level non-Black male colleague asking her, “Did you want your hair like that?” prompting laughter from a nearby colleague matching his demographic.

These experiences remind us that the workplace often judges Black women by different standards. It can seem acceptable to make insensitive comments and crude jokes at our expense. We’re often left feeling troubled, isolated, frustrated – and embarrassed. The worst part is that for many of us, these moments happen so often we’ve become desensitized. We mask our turmoil while others carry on with their day. It’s an unacceptable dynamic that needs to be talked about openly to combat ignorance and promote a shift in attitude.

Never shrink; Shine brightly

The truth is, most of us don’t want any fuss around what our hair looks like – minus any compliments people want to direct our way. Some of us avoid styling our hair as we might like to keep it from becoming the subject of conversation. Some even ponder whether we’re being complicit and minimizing the Black experience if we choose to wear our hair in a non-natural style. A passage from American author Marianne Williamson springs to mind: “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

To those who experience the struggle of navigating an authentic representation of themselves in the workplace, we say: Never shrink. Own your look, and above all, shine brightly. Your hair is your crown; treat it as such.

As Black women embrace their hair, they’re better able to bring their whole selves to the workplace. Black-owned Afro-Caribbean hair businesses like Byooti Ltd are rising to the forefront of conversations around beauty and lifestyle, reinforcing the idea that Black hair is to be admired and celebrated, regardless of style or color.

Authenticism in the workplace

As we aim to foster a positive, inclusive environment, sustained allyship is at the center of support. Allies are being found even among lawmakers: In the U.S., the House of Representatives passed the CROWN act, which bans discrimination based on hair texture or style. Seven states have already signed the bill into law.

Of course, oppression spans well beyond Black hair. People of various backgrounds and intersectionalities call on allies to:

  • Learn. Remove the expectation that Black women should educate you about their hair; the internet is readily available.
  • Listen. Absorb the given perspective of Black women as a step toward understanding them.
  • Speak. Call out and correct injustices while avoiding giving unsolicited commentary on Black women’s hair.  
  • Reflect. Check in with yourself to confront your own biases and adjust accordingly.

It’s only by openly acknowledging Black hair as a workplace issue that we can talk about it – and then get back to doing the work we love.

Black History Month is celebrated in Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK in October.

Digital Business & Technology, Diversity & Inclusion allies, black hair, D&I, diversity, inclusion, racial injustice

Titilope Akinwamide

Titilope Akinwamide is a Business Analyst at Cognizant, with experience in leading and supporting business and digital...

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