“You know what I’m realizing … Black women change their hair often. White women don’t really constantly change their hairstyles like you all do … Why is that?” These words came from my white boss at my first full-time job as he observed my new hairstyle.
The Mondays after getting my hair done, I always prepare myself to receive some unwanted attention at work.
I stared blankly at him, and my younger self nervously laughed it off. But I hated having to explain what my style was, or how my hair got longer or shorter overnight. I hated having to explain that my micro braids took approximately five to six hours, and that they would last over a month. I just wanted to show up to work, and go home.
You know who else likely wanted to go to work and go home? Gabrielle Union. News recently broke that “America’s Got Talent” ousted Union, and reports about why started making their way to social media. In addition to allegations that Union’s contract wasn’t renewed after she spoke out about a culture of racism on the show, she was also reportedly told that her constant hair changes were “too black.” I couldn’t help but think about the statements made by my past boss, and how many times I was treated as a spectacle by fascinated white colleagues.
“You changed your hair, I barely recognized you!”
“Oh wow, your hair got so long!!”
“So is this your hair or extensions?”
You barely recognized me? Really? To say this to me or other Black women highlights your inability to accept me in the workspace, and constantly reminds me that this space expects me to conform to what it believes is the “right” way of being.
The night that news of Union’s ouster hit the internet, the #BlackHairChallenge was revived and took Twitter by storm. #BlackHairChallenge was a hashtag trend curated in 2017 by Twitter user/platform @MelaninMamis, encouraging Black women to post four pictures of themselves in four different hairstyles. The purpose of the challenge was to showcase the beauty and versatility of black hair.
Today, many states have no choice but to accept these different styles as it has become illegal in many places to discriminate against a person because of their hair. While these laws keep employers from relieving us of our work duties, we are still subjected to inappropriate comments and questions about our hair and Black culture.
For the most part, I’ve enjoyed my white colleagues (past and present) and have connected with great people at work. Yet these types of comments, while they may seem innocent, remind me that work will never be my safe space.
“Why don’t you just tell them that what they are asking is wrong?”
I have many friends who believe it’s our job as Black women to correct white co-workers in these and other instances of racism in the workplace. They often use the word “educate” them.
My current boss, (a white woman) recently asked me if I would be comfortable telling her if she ever said anything culturally insensitive to me. I thought about it, and quickly told her no. We have a great working relationship, and I am comfortable around her, yet I still don’t think I would tell her in the moment if she did something to offend me.
I’m known as a vocal individual at my workplace and have already been told that I’m too “passionate.” So I find myself picking and choosing what I will address, and biting my tongue in an attempt to avoid being perceived as the Black woman with the “attitude.”
I look up to Gabrielle Union, because she has been a voice for Black women for quite some time and has zero tolerance for disrespect. But if Gabrielle Union, a well-known celebrity, had to face consequences when she spoke up at her place of work, why wouldn’t I? If she couldn’t be in a workspace where she could “educate” an individual about how wrong the racist jokes they made were without loss of opportunity, what happens to the rest of us Black women? Do we miss out on promotions? Do we risk job loss?
So I may bite my tongue at the office. But I’m speaking up now. To ignore the voices of Black women as we speak up against a culture of racism, is to encourage racism in that particular space. To tell us that our hairstyles are “too black” is to ask us to assimilate and abandon our blackness. We have the right to love and embrace our hair for being different, without being subject to inappropriate questioning or treated as a spectacle.
It is not my job to teach you how to accept this, or me. At work or anywhere else.