Last month, I was leaving my women’s AA meeting when a young white woman complimented my rainbow-hued nails that are, at times, longer than the bobby pins in my hair. The compliment was overshadowed shortly after by another white woman who looked at my nails with palpable disgust.
“What job could you possibly have with those nails?” she asked, her voice dripping with judgment.
I responded, with confidence, that I am the audience editor at the Houston Chronicle.
“And what audience is that?” she asked.
I turned around and walked away. This wasn’t the first, second or the 100th time I have received condescending comments about my nails from white women. At times, the thoughtless and ignorant commentary has brought me to frustrated tears.
Every time I experience an interaction like this — where a non-Black person insinuates that I am unprofessional and unworthy because of nails, it digs deeper into my psyche. Especially in light of the broad appropriation of long nails, the assumption that a Black woman who wears a vibrant set couldn’t possibly have a “good” job is both ironic and absurd. And it’s a problem worthy of examination.
Let’s start by setting the record straight: Extra long nails were originated by women who look like me. Black women have set the tone for much of what’s trending in American (and global) fashion. Yet we are not only denied credit for it most of the time, we are often condemned for participating in the styles we birthed. Imagine, the caucacity.
Khloe Kardashian, Billie Eilish, Adele and so many other non-Black stars have rocked long nails, Bantu knots or cornrows, effectively co-opting long-hailed staples of Black style. These women are never considered uneducated, broke or my personal favorite, “ghetto” — the choice verbal caricature of a Black woman from the hood.
Imagine assuming that because of my long nails, I couldn’t possibly have a creative and stimulating job that I earned because of my hard work and intelligence. It is infuriating, as a Black woman in America, to often find my nails under a disapproving magnifying glass. People, these are the same nails that your favorite non-POC TikTok stars have on.
I am continuously hit with misconceptions because of the length and design of my nails. Could you imagine if every white woman with an inverted bob was automatically assumed to be a “Karen”?
The judgment I experience is just another way respectability politics show up everywhere and force people like myself, from structurally marginalized communities, to cast aside their cultural identity to seek approval and climb the ladder of the social hierarchy. In 2023, I shouldn’t have to conform. Neither should you.
My admiration for beautiful nails began before I hit grade school. When I was a kid, my grandmother used to have long nails with an acrylic overlay to make them stronger. They were usually purple, her favorite color, and I was always mesmerized by them. As much as I wanted to emulate her style as a kid, my mother didn’t allow it. I couldn’t even have them painted. All that changed on my 16th birthday. I got long nails with a green french tip and designs on my index fingers. I was reborn.
When I was in college, I only got my nails done when I could afford to. They were an integral part of my self-expression — and they often conveyed my emotions even when I didn’t vocalize them. My nails were painted black after my mother died. Other times, they were filled with gems and shaped in the stiletto style, all because I was feeling particularly fierce. They were always long, and they always indicated where my spirit was at.
During the beginning of my career in journalism, at my very first interview for a reporter position, I decided I needed to hide my true self to fit the role and code-switch — adjusting my appearance to make others feel comfortable. Off came the nails, and on came the wig to cover my purple hair and a long-sleeve shirt to cover my tattoos. I continued that pattern to avoid being discriminated against. I also learned that code-switching in other ways made my white colleagues more comfortable.
At my second reporter position, I began to question the system and eased back into my more authentic self. I went from short, to medium, and then to long nails, testing the water with each added millimeter. It was there that I found the confidence to not hide who I was because my colleagues appeared to actually appreciate the individuality I brought to a newsroom, which was staffed predominantly by white reporters.
Last year, when I was hired to join the Houston Chronicle, I sat down for a welcome brunch with the outlet’s then editor-in-chief, a Black woman who knew the adversities POC faced in primarily white newsrooms. During that conversation, I asked her what her thoughts were on extra long nails.
“As long as it doesn’t interfere with your work, you can have them as long as you want,” she said. The common sense was refreshing.
I spent too many years hiding my complete self. Turns out that with or without my nails, I occupy a body that invites unsolicited commentary, condescension and attempts at control. So at this point, IDGAF. I don’t need anyone’s approval to express myself in the way that brings me peace.
My long nails afford me the space for elaborate designs and flair. Clicking them together helps with my anxiety. And they complete my outfits and make me feel confident. What they don’t do is define me or my capabilities as a Black woman.