In the latest case of hair related workplace discrimination, a Zara employee was humiliated when co workers tried to 'fix' her natural hair because it was deemed 'unprofessional' and decided to file a complaint.
Bravo sis! Enough is enough. We become so accustomed to the constraints and mandates of Eurocentric beauty standards that nine times out of ten we won't even question them. We straighten our hair. We put in tight braids. We loosen our buns. We pat down our curls. We cut off our locs. And for what? A paycheck?
Don't get me wrong. As a mother of two looking for a house and trying to get a car with her fiancé, I know all too well the urgency of pay day when those bills are rolling in the same time every month. But what are we willing to lose to keep them paid? We should NEVER be in a position where we have to choose between groceries and our identity whether we are spiritually connected to our roots or we just prefer the look of our natural hair.
In light of this and countless other cases of black women and men being denied their dignity and educational or professional opportunities as a direct result of their unapologetic black aesthetic, I've compiled a list of questions that I hope can open up an honest dialogue between people about why we feel the way we feel about certain hair in the workplace. We need to get to the truth in order to change the tide.
1. Does it make any sense that my hair is part of the conversation at work?
I've often heard the excuse that natural hair is somehow 'distracting.' I want to make it very plain that this is indeed an excuse. Any time I have ever been intrigued, amused or taken aback by someone's appearance- I either comment on it or don't- usually to myself- and I move along with my day. I am not suddenly crippled at the sight of a brightly colored Mohawk, a barely there skirt, a particularly interesting fabric or even a tee that reads 'Breathe easy. Obey the law,' in response to the phrase 'I can't breathe' becoming a rallying cry after the murder of Eric Garner.
If I can deal with that without jeopardizing the livelihood or employment of my fellow man, why is it so easy for employers and educational institutions to strip people like me of their means of taking care of their families on the basis of hair texture and style?
2. Do you feel like it's fair that one group's aesthetic is the measure by which all others are judged in the workplace?
It's very important to understand that genetics matter. We talk a lot about culture and how we identify and that is crucial in understanding our fellow man but sometimes folks can't handle your cultural competence when they have no interest in knowing you beyond a face and a name. That's when you have to get practical with them.
I was recently exposed to a line of thinking that could make a lot of people understand what we already know about our tresses at a symposium on black hair and the law hosted by the center for law and Justice at Medgar Evers college.
How did one become the standard of 'professionalism' and what does it mean for the others?
3. Do you realize we could be wearing the same exact style and they would look completely different?
When a child with naturally straight hair wears two ponytails for example, the hair hangs downward naturally. When a child with naturally curly hair wears ponytails they reach outward and upward. Notice we call the same style two different things on people of different ethnicities. They rock ponytails. We rock Afro puffs. Same hair style. Completely different finished products. Who decided one looked better, or more professional and appropriate than the other?
4. How would you feel if something you were born with was deemed unacceptable?
In keeping with the logical approach- because so many people have been conditioned to tune you out the minute you start talking about inequality- the simple fact is that our hair grows how it grows. There are methods available to change it but we should not HAVE to. What if fair skin was deemed inappropriate for work? Or blue eyes? Our natural hair is just as common place for us as those traits are for others.
How crazy would it be to hear someone say 'I'm sorry Beth, but your skin is just too fair. It's really not what we're looking for here so if you want the job you're going to have to tan it up. You know. Make yourself more presentable.' The way our hair is spoken about is just as ridiculous.
5. What exactly about this style/ texture is 'unprofessional?'
Let's get specific. People love to throw words like 'inappropriate' and 'unprofessional' around as it relates to black hair but it's an automated response generated by years of inequity disguised as 'the way things are.'
Make no mistake someone purposefully made things this way and it's our job to challenge and ultimately change this view of natural hair as unkempt by rocking it unashamedly wherever we may be, by challenging the systems that try to keep us from doing so and by creating spaces where no one can tell us how to present ourselves because WE are running the show.
When other people wear their hair in tight curls, braids and twists or utilize other styles and looks created and worn for years in communities of color it is never frowned upon. In fact they are often applauded as chic, trendy and trailblazing as though cornrows (not to be confused with 'boxer braids' or 'Kim Kardashian West' braids) fell out of the sky and onto the heads of Wypipo by the grace of benevolent White Jesus.
Yall got everything from baby hair, lavish fingernail decor, wearing Tims and Northface coats for fashion and 'marble' hair ties to tribal and African print, indigenous headdress, love for big behinds and full lips and the glorious Bantu knot from us. Not Bjork. Not Marc Jacobs. Blaqpipo.
The irony of being forced to change our aesthetic to be deemed 'professional' 'acceptable' or 'appropriate' in the workplace as trends that started in our communities walk down runways and grace the pages of international publications across the globe attached to fair skin, slim bodies and straight hair could not be any clearer.
So the next time your acquaintance, friend, relative, boss or a well meaning but ill informed passer by decides to question the validity of your hair in its natural state or an ethnic style, pop quiz their ass on when exactly they became infected with white supremacy.
You could save a life.