Is it possible to reach the C-suite without straight hair?
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.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, that sentiment still exists, although I do believe that fewer Whites and more Blacks actually believe it to be true. If you haven’t noticed recently, Black women with kinky hair dominate the same commercials that are cast by all White ad agencies (that is the only time you’ll hear me giving Madison Avenue props). It’s mostly Blacks, not Whites who have internalized the hype from 100 years earlier and who just won’t let it go.
The aspiration to straighten and lengthen our hair wasn’t all bad. The money that was created from Black businesses like Madame C. J. Walker, Dudley Hair Care Products, and hundreds of thousands of Black beauty parlors has done some good for the Black community. It also led us to experiment with our hair and pave innovative roads in hair fashion. But our obsession with straight flowing hair has also caused us to allow some people to take advantage of us financially.
As a woman who chooses to wear my hair in natural styles, it’s disheartening to me that I receive more negative comments from Blacks about my hair then I’ve ever received from Whites.
That’s not to say that White people don’t still feel nappy Black hair is hideous, but they aren’t as vocal about it and when they are, they’re usually condemned as racist. Remember the White staffer from Glamour magazine who told a group of lawyers that ethnic hairstyles were a fashion don’t when it came to corporate dress? She was reprimanded and the editor and managing editor of the magazine was made to apologize publicly on her behalf.
Meanwhile, day in and day out, Black women and men tell other Black women and men the exact same things without any condemnation.
Now, having said all of that, I’m going to contradict myself (Hey, Blacks are not a monolithic group and my opinions don’t walk a straight line either). The unemployment rate fell to 9% recently, but it is still 15.7% for Blacks not including the under-employed, marginally attached, and discouraged workers. The reality is that your chances for getting a job and getting promoted are lessened when you don’t conform/assimilate to an ideal, predefined standard of appearance in certain industries. Is it right? No. Is there something you can do about that? Yes. If you’ve demonstrated that you have an incomparable work ethic, you can tame your company’s most challenging projects, and you’ve dotted every I or crossed every T on your resume but you still aren’t getting hired or promoted, then you have three choices: 1) Change industries 2) start your own company or 3) conform and straighten your hair and/or cut your locs.
At any cost, as Indie.Arie once reminded us, we are NOT our hair, and if you cut it, it will grow back. And that’s just what you can do once you’ve proven your worth and scaled the company hierarchy. At which point you can start hiring some of those people who were in your shoes and make sure they don’t have to walk the “fine line” in order to make the cut.
- What do you think? Can natural hair and professionalism co-exist? Or should we all expect to conform when we take (or apply for) positions in various companies? Should it matter how you wear your hair as long as you present yourself well? Join the conversation by leaving your comment below.