Are natural hair and locs unprofessional in corporate America? That was the subject broached by the friend of a friend on Facebook recently. The young lady stated that she likes natural hairstyles, but because she works in an entry level position at a conservative investment bank, she doesn’t think it is “work appropriate,” and that it would be difficult to move up the corporate ladder with an “ethnic” hairstyle.
The statement made me wonder whether many women on Black Enterprise’s 75 Most Powerful Women in Business list wore their hair in natural or “ethnic” hairstyles. A cursory glance produced about five, including Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox and one of the most powerful women in business. I couldn’t think of any C-suite men who had locs or short afros. When I informed the young woman on Facebook what I found, she countered that those five women were at the top of their game, and that their hair may not have been “kinky” on the way up. Hmmm. She’s got a point.
I’m a believer in freedom of expression when it comes to appearance. I definitely do NOT believe that all Black people should wear their hair natural. But for those who choose to, the idea that you can’t succeed in business if you choose to leave your naturally curly hair, curly, really bothers me.
So, when I pitched the idea for an article about natural hair in the C-suite at a recent meeting, a few of my BLACK ENTERPRISE colleagues said that the way in which one wore their hair was an expression of fashion; something meant to change with the seasons and maturity. Others thought the issue had been played in the media too many times. And some just wondered why anyone would care about expressing their self through hair if they were unemployed and in desperate need of work.
Then there were those like me who asked the same question that actress Tracie Thoms did in Chris Rock’s movie Good Hair. Why is it that wearing one’s hair, the way God created it such a revolutionary idea? After debating our different perspectives for the next 10-15 minutes, we all realized this was truly a divisive issue worth covering.
Why is natural hair such a big deal? Here is some background for anyone who is completely clueless on the subject and a reminder for those who already know. There is a negative stigma attached to natural Black hair in the United States and frankly in most places of the world. The story starts way before the current natural hair craze that some people think is a fad, and before the 1970’s when afros became popular as a “political statement” for activists who wanted to revel in “Black beauty” but was then temporarily accepted by the rest of the Black community and White ones too.
In the 1800’s and early 1900’s nappy, kinky, curly, hair was deemed inferior, ugly, and unkempt in comparison to the flowing, bouncy, hair of people from other cultures. The caricatures of Blacks that surfaced during that time in movies, children’s books, on laundry detergent, and food products were commonplace and they taught Blacks and Whites alike to loathe the appearance of Black hair and to associate it with dirtiness, unruliness and even character traits like laziness and dishonesty.
While the dark complexions, wider noses, and fuller lips of Blacks were also disparaged, the texture of our hair was the only thing that we could realistically and drastically change (at that time) about our appearance to escape those negative associations. And making that change was encouraged as Blacks who straightened their hair were deemed more likable, agreeable, and dependable by Whites; even more employable.