Hair at Work

12/29/2016 05:14 pm ET

In my first job after gaining my BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, I was called into the HR department and told that I had to unbraid my hair or not come back. It was in the 80’s, the style had bangs in front and unbeaded box braids with curled ends that just grazed my shoulders. Neat, circumspect and cute. I was so excited to be a working woman.

The ensuing HR reprimand referenced the white actress Bo Derek. Her braided hair prancing and exuding perfected sexuality on the beach in the movie 10, bolstered the HR ruling that my braided hair was too casual and an unprofessional choice of hairstyle. Knife inserted, now twisted. I was stunned.

I was in my early 20s, full of feelings of accomplishment, cradled in the support of my family, surrounded by gorgeous braid & Afro-wearing Black women on the streets of Brooklyn, affirmed by Black men, included in positive images of people who looked like me and who I aspired to be, as seen in Jet & Ebony magazines and Gil Nobles' Like It Is.

I was a Black woman being penalized for a hair style that Black people have worn for millennia, because it was misappropriated into white iconography. I was stepping into womanhood after the elite schooling and preparation for the working world, yet all HR could see was Bo in a bathing suit with sand in all the wrong places. I listened and maybe I said something, but if I did, it could only have been at the volume of a squeak. I felt stripped and powerless.

Back at work the following day, same hair, I was asked to leave. My mother reluctantly yielded to my wishes and allowed me to pursue the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) filing process on my own. I received a small financial compensation but over the last 30+ years when the memory returns, it still stings and still informs my hairstyle decisions; but now, the memory empowers me to take full advantage of my many hair options.

Maneuvering through the confusing regulations, written and unwritten, that govern our hair is a constant and common experience for Black women (and men to some extent). Progress on this front has been extremely slow.

  • In July 2016, as a leader of the Black employee resource group at a Fortune 500 company, I was approached by a member distraught because she was strongly advised by her Black manager that changing from her straight long weave to her natural hair would adversely affect her career advancement. The message: If she wanted to climb the corporate ladder, straight would be better than curly, natural hair.

There are many other recent examples of employers continuing to fire or refusing to hire otherwise qualified Black employees using coded descriptions of our hair as “a distraction,” “unkempt,” “faddish” or unsuitable because “hair must be worn down.”

The big deal for Black people and our versatile hair is that it has been used to exclude and stigmatize us, even as it has often been appropriated into mainstream culture. Our hair, and how we style and creatively incorporate it into our presentation of self, is fundamentally misunderstood. This is especially true in the workplace. Policies and people struggle to find the balance between assimilation (or "fit") and authenticity, caution and creativity. Some words of advice for companies that seek a diverse, innovative, differentiated and engaged workforce that includes exceptional Black women: We are 100% Black and 100% professional so please, get out of our hair!

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