Black women and the natural hair bias: the importance of self-expression in corporate America

Posted by Ritha Pierre on

It is no secret that there has been a lot of tension of the years over the acceptable standard of the natural ‘afro’ hair appearance at work. This dilemma has stemmed from a perceived impression from most employers that the appearance of the hair type may seem unprofessional and unsuitable for the workplace. Black women are particularly plagued with this struggle being that their hair type, structure and appearance comes in a tighter and lush coil that has been critiqued to not fit into the common standard. A lot of times, one would expect that this issue is only perceived and not real as women are expected to be allowed to appear in a way that they see fit as long as it conforms to the corporate standards. However, all evidence and reports have shown that even in the smallest of workspaces, black women are currently being faced with extreme scrutiny in their respective offices with the main crux being the appearance of the natural hair. This situation therefore brings up two questions? The first being that; should we, as a society work towards conforming to what has being seen as the acceptable standard or do we work together towards changing them?

Real life experiences have shown that this issue is a very real and present problem in many work places. In August of 2001, there was a massive outrage in the black community when the Dean of Hampton university school of business established a rule that effectively banned the dreadlock and cornrow appearance. He suggested that the ban was instrumental in helping students get access to corporate jobs and with this assertion; he maintained his position regardless of the pressure.  While his argument seemed to stem from good intention, one can clearly see that the natural hair bias has eaten so deep into the fabric of the  modern world that black women are being encouraged and in this case; coerced to conform to this standard. However, with the massive amount of attention that the natural hair discrimination has gathered, large companies have come under fire in recent times for their employment discrimination and this has brought about necessary debate that has seen the situation change positively over the years. This debacle may very well boil down to a severe lack of understanding. It is understandable to believe that those places that may deny enrollment to individuals with their natural hair does so with prejudice as this has been likened to other extreme hairstyles like the Mohawk and even dreadlocks with unnatural coloring.

It is of utmost important however, for employers to understand that wearing ones natural hair is meaningful and holds great significance. It should not be seen as a language of defiance or a way to make a non-conformist rebellious statement but rather, a means of self-identification. At the very least, it is simply the way that the hair grows out of their heads. Would you then encourage individuals to change their own natural look or alter their genetic construct (if possible) to fit into what is perceived as desirable?

Black women on the other hand should lose the primitive mentality that this hairstyle would not be acceptable in the corporate world. While there may be traces of this discrimination still lingering in our workspaces with some extreme cases, they should learn to feel comfortable with the way their hair appears. In fact, with the many styling options that have been made available, black women can explore decent and professional looks with their hairstyles and find suitable appearances that work for them. Following the culture of the office environment is important and one must learn how to integrate and follow the rules without losing oneself in the process.

Wearing ones natural hair is therefore one of the strongest means of self-expressing. Your hair is an extension of who you are and letting it grow with proper care translates directly into profound love and self-acceptance. It must not be seen in a negative light or used as an item of amusement.

When it comes down to the necessity of proper appearance and professional outlook, the onus lies first on the employers to create an accommodative environment that supports a middle ground for all individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds. Black women also have a responsibility in portraying the beauty of their natural hair in a positive light and showcase to their employers and superiors that the afro hair is beautiful, magnificent and can be just as professional like any other hair type.

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