As a woman of color, I have to be mindful of the way I navigate corporate America in order to be viewed as professional. There are unwritten rules.
Recently, writer Michelle Gadsen-Williams came forward about the struggle she faced while wearing natural hair as an executive of a Fortune 500 company. Michelle’s story is similar to the story of many naturals. For years and years she would flat iron her hair as a part of her high powered executive uniform. Then things changed. A medical scare which lead to surgery followed by soreness caused Michelle to be unable to flat iron her hair as she normally would. So began her return to natural; Williams allowed her curls their time in the sun.
I’ll admit now that I was afraid: first, of the conversations it would spark with my peers and superiors
I’ll admit now that I was afraid: first, of the conversations it would spark with my peers and superiors, both Black and white, and second, of the deeply ingrained racial issues regarding what constitutes “polished”—I just wasn’t prepared to address them at the time.
As many of us naturals can relate to some of the doubts that Michelle experienced when she went back to work with her new look, I find her story especially insightful.
When I went natural some six years ago, coworkers constantly asked me if I was going to start wearing dreadlocks. Sometimes they’d tell me repeatedly about their preference of my relaxed hair. I was always concerned about my hair growing frizzy throughout the day and not looking as polished as possible.
I am not an executive–I am a paint chemist and I work in manufacturing facilities were production workers are allowed to wear jeans. However, I was expected to dress like a member of the administrative staff. With the ever present risk of paint spilling and splashing all over me, I would’ve loved wearing jeans with my steel-toed boots–but of course, that would have been frowned upon. I was expected to look professional regardless of the messy nature of my job. Adding natural hair to the mix made me feel especially self-conscious.
No one is going to come out and tell you that your hairstyle is a problem. You will likely figure it out over time, when you’re continuously passed over for a job, a promotion, or a particular assignment. If you have aspirations to reach the next level of leadership, you have to play ball—something I did for years.
Some naturals work in environments that reward hard work and dedication while paying no attention at all to how your hair is styled; I’m not certain if these naturals are in the majority.
Natural hair tends to attract attention. That’s just how it is. Sadly, often time our own friends and family are the ones that try to undermine our decision to embrace our natural self and while I’m unwilling to speculate about the reasons behind the reluctance to let us just be as we are, there is a lot of truth behind the idea that the longer you are natural the less you care about what others think about your hair. I don’t think you ever stop caring though, because we are social beings that want other people to like us. Natural hair is a lot more acceptable now than in the past but there are people who still believe that it has no place in the world of work.
And then a Black female colleague stated, ‘In my opinion, some hairstyles are just not appropriate for the workplace.’ I was deflated.
As many of us have our own versions of Michelle’s story, it is great to remember that we are not alone.
That’s what has always been great about the natural hair community–the camaraderie and support that exists has bolstered many of us to persevere when things get tough. We are here where we are free to be whomever we choose to be.
We’d love to hear about your experiences.