Hair Politics: Hair at work – Part 2

*Ed. note: Sorry for the super long post — I had a lot to say :)*

I’ve been wearing my hair naturally at work for about a year and three months. This isn’t the first time I’ve been natural — about seven years ago, I chopped it all off. At that point, I got mad love from the people who weren’t Black. My people who were Black? They just couldn’t understand why someone with reasonably long hair would cut it down to half an inch.

My colleagues at work were more curious than anything, wanting to know how I cared for my hair. You know, I was never offended by the questions — I mean, it just seemed like innocent curiosity. Let’s get this straight – being rude and being curious are very different things. No one touched my hair or talked about perceived cleanliness of Black hair or anything like that. They just seemed fascinated with hair that was so different than what grew out of their own heads.

I traveled to Montreal to visit my parents and we went to church. A woman, whose relaxed hair was damaged and in desperate need of care and a good deep condition said, “I would never cut off my hair!” Why would you want to keep it in that state? Really? I’ve never really been scared to cut my hair because I knew it would grow back eventually. Hair is hair and you can’t be too attached to it.

Fast forward to 2008. I transitioned to natural hair and the first people who commented — positively commented — were Black women. They would stop me in Tim Hortons or in the mall wanting to know how I got my hair like how it was. My work colleagues — they didn’t seem too concerned. They mentioned that my hair was different, but it wasn’t like people were holding their tongues, waiting to make a derogatory comment, not doing it because of they were scared to be reprimanded.

Yesterday, I went to BP Uncensored: Real Beauty at the University of Toronto and there was a deep discussion about natural hair at work, whether that means hair that’s not chemically treated or hair that is loc’d. There was a woman who had shaved hair who said that other Black people would suck their teeth and roll their eyes at her. Other people spoke of negative experiences at work with natural hair — which to me is different from an unconventional hair style. I don’t think that wearing my hair half shaved off (like Cassie or Rihanna) would fly in a conservative work environment, but wearing my hair in its natural state is not unconventional. Natural Black hair is not a style, per se, it is how my hair is. Saying that hair that is not chemically treated is a style is like saying that my skin, in its natural chocolate brown glory, is a style as well.

Another person — a man — said that we have to be wary of how we put ourselves together — like wearing jeans to an interview or possibly having locs because it can be career limiting in some cases. I’m sure it can be, but I’m offended that my hair is compared to being inappropriately dressed for an interview. My hair isn’t inappropriate.

If my hair is career limiting at that particular establishment, at that point I’m sure to two things: 1) To this company, my skin colour is more of a problem than my hair. If a company is that concerned about hiring me because I wear my hair in its natural state, they are concerned about hiring a Black person. I know if I slap on a wig, I won’t be any more appealing to them because they aren’t scared/worried/stressed about my hair. They are scared/worried/stressed about my Blackness and what that means in the work environment. My hair would only be an excuse to say that I don’t fit in; 2) I don’t want to work there. If I can’t be me and if my hair is a problem, although I’m qualified, have worked for good companies and have references — that is not the organization for me. Plain and simple.

I can change into a pantsuit, but I cannot change who I am. It’s my right to wear my hair how I want, but it’s my responsibility to do the job that I’ve been hired to do well. As long as I’m clean and well put together, the texture of my hair is not up for discussion.

Going back to the woman who said her Black colleagues would suck their teeth or roll their eyes at her, I have harsh words for them — or any other Black person who is embarrassed by my hair or think it’s a negative reflection of the Black community. I am me and I represent myself, don’t be embarrassed. Be embarrassed by the rate of AIDS/HIV infection in our community. Be embarrassed that you’re taking time to judge me instead of uplifting another Black woman. Your embarrassment and anger about  my hair is self-hate and you need to deal with that. That is not my problem.

But, these haven’t been my experiences.

I wonder about people who’ve had overwhelmingly negative experiences — don’t get me wrong. I don’t discount them — but I do wonder if their perception of what others think is more the issue than what people actually think. If you go to work ready to fight with people because someone takes a second look at you, you will find reasons to get angry.

When you walk into a room and you are defensive about your hair, of course everything that people say or don’t say is a personal insult. A look is no longer a look, it’s someone sizing you up. Someone asking about your hair isn’t just someone asking a question, it’s a snide comment. Our experiences and perceptions colour our perceptions of others.

I am confident in myself and my ability at work — I don’t stress over how my hair may look to others because it looks good to me. Although my hair is a representation of me, it doesn’t define who I am because I am the same person I was a year and a half ago when my hair was relaxed.

So, readers, what do you think? What have been your experiences? At work, does it feel like people are negative towards your hair?


10 Comments Add yours

  1. Moni says:

    I’ve never had any negative experiences at work, but so far I’ve only worked in Ann Arbor, Michigan and San Francisco, both super liberal places. Even so, I tend to wear my hair in more conservative styles for work. On the other hand, I know people who have had negative experiences. To a certain extent, you are “blaming the victim” by saying that it might just be “their perception” that a comment is negative. The only way you can view your world is through your perception. The flip side of that argument is that they could say that it might be your perception that you haven’t experienced negativity that causes you to overlook negative responses. Someone else’s experiences or perceptions are just that, their experience.

    1. urbansista says:

      I’m not blaming the victim and I’m not discounting her experiences — I hope that I made that very clear in the post. My experiences have been different — my work environment is different and my personality is different than the woman that I heard speak yesterday. So, I get that we’ll both have different experiences with natural hair at work.

      But, I do believe that if there is an expectation that someone is going to look down on you because of your hair, what may be an innocent comment can seem like a disparaging comment.

      While you can only view the world through your own perception, you also have to be willing to grow and ask yourself if your perception is always real. Often it is, but sometimes it isn’t. Let’s say my husband says, ‘oh, is that how you’re wearing your hair?’ and I’ve never worn it like that before, he may not be looking to hurt my feelings. If I’m sensitive about how my hair looks that day, I may be offended. My perception of the situation is off. It’s still my perception, but it’s not right because the meaning behind it wasn’t malicious.

      I know that people have had negative experiences. I’m not ignoring that. But if you can’t recount one neutral experience that you’ve had in the workplace, are you perceiving negativity that isn’t always there. Are you expecting to be attacked therefore you see everything as an attack?

  2. Never had any issues at work, except for the odd impromptu hand in the new braids, which they soon learned not to repeat 🙂 When I was younger the negative attention came from strangers, both men and women, who felt a need to tell me what always boiled down to “You should NOT have cut your hair.” Someone even told me that it wouldn’t grow back?

    I wear what suits my mood at that particular moment, it could be natural, relaxed or in between. But overall whatever style I choose always carries me where ever I need to go. However, I feel for those who work in environments with colleagues who have no outlet for their passive aggression. sign and chupse!

  3. ~Back to Curly~ says:

    Folks aren’t necessarily negative towards my hair per se…but I think my hair helps to define my personality and that sets me apart from everyone else. For the most part, I work in a predominately Caucasian workplace, with sprinkles of black women & men throughout the company. Most of the black women do wear their hair relaxed…if I were to guess in #’s, it’d be 9 out of 10 women who wear their hair relaxed. Because I stick out as a minority in…I guess a bit two fold here…I’m absolutely looked upon as someone who’s chosen something other than the norm. In my experience this leads to a whole lot of curiosity…and a lot of that curiosity goes unspoken, sometimes talked about behind closed doors etc.

    I still face negative comments about my hair, but over time the voices have quieted a bit just because I’m choosing to ignore them. Another person’s perception of who they ‘think’ I am, and how I live my life is really just that, their perception. It’s of no relevance to who I actually am, who I’m choosing to be. I define me, no one else.

    great post btw;-)

  4. Akilah says:

    Glad to see you’re back! I’ve also recently decided to go natural, and I can totally relate to much of what you’ve said here. I, too, get confused, sometimes horrified looks from other black women when I tell them that I’ve decided to go natural. “But your hair looks so good. Why would you want to do that?” was one of the responses. As if letting my hair grow in its natural state, and ridding it of chemicals that are probably infiltrating into my scalp and bloodstream is a bad thing (not judging anyone else, since going natural is a totally personal choice).
    I too have wondered if I would be in the job that I’m in right now had I worn a natural hairstyle three years ago when I first interviewed. And honestly, I’m not totally sure I would have. The three people interviewing me were white. And while you’re right, white people usually have less of an issue re: going natural than other blacks (especially women), I’m not sure if it would have caused them concern. I have a sinking sensation that I wouldn’t have this job, though, sad to say.
    Again, glad you’re back!

  5. urbansista says:

    Thanks ladies for your comments. I don’t know where my career would be if I was natural while job hunting. I would like to be positive and say, ‘regardless of how my hair was, I’d still be successful because I am smart, professional, friendly, etc.’ I don’t know if that is the case.

    I do think that as Black people we have to push the boundaries a little. Meaning, 50 years ago a Black person would never be found working in a major corporation because of the colour of his skin. Sixty years ago, a woman wouldn’t have been in a position of power because of her gender. Times have changed, now we have to continue changing them.

    As Black women, we have more against us, but sometimes I feel like we put extra burdens on ourselves. It’s not enough that we’re women and Black women, but now we’re Black women with natural hair. I’m a dark-skinned Black woman with natural hair — but I still consider myself relatively successful in the workplace. I could say that my skin colour would be unacceptable because it makes me stand out — but I think that would be putting another hindrance on myself. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself properly…

    I have to think more about this topic. There may be a Part 3 in the future.

  6. kwietstorm says:

    “I don’t know where my career would be if I was natural while job hunting”… I wore a wig to my interview (I’m still in the same job), then immediately wore my hair natural, or in a head wrap, as soon as I got the job. I believe that I would have had the same success (getting the job), but there was always the chance… then when you throw in a distinctly African name…the politics of job hunting is a messy affair and depends on many factors.

    1. urbansista says:

      You should have come out to the event! They are thinking of having a part 2 that deals exclusively with hair. The politics of chance may play a role — who knows who you are going to meet in a job interview. If that person is close-minded, your hair — instead of your qualifications — may become a topic of discussion. I wonder if making the change once you’re in a position is truly different. I mean, if your colleagues aren’t freaking out because of it, would they have if you met them with some twists in your hair?

      But I do stand by my opinion that if the reason that I don’t get a job is because of my hair it’s not really because of my hair. My Blackness or my ‘otherness’ is more the issue than my two-strand twist-out.

  7. kwietstorm says:

    Yes, sigh, last weekend was a busy weekend. Perhaps girl, perhaps, I do not believe in one or the other, or absolutes, the polictics of our imagined community a messy/chaotic/dynamic affair that I feel can not be neatly wrapped up in one statment or another.

    I work in a system that systematically excludes black people. Systematically. It was more important that I get the job, than how I did it. I knew that the postion would allow me impact many a young mind- and that was my goal. To get the position and then make incremental steps towards a direction of solutions.

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