By Darian Dozier
As society is becoming more culturally aware, there’s no time like the present to appreciate all that is Black hair.
There’s no limit to what Black hair can be because of the effort and creativity that Black women have put into their hair for centuries. Black hair can be straight, curly, wavy, long, short, kinky, blonde, pink, and more.
Black women often have a complex and complicated relationship with their hair that begins at a young age. It can be a taxing relationship, but also nurturing and empowering.
Yet, still in 2021, Black women are often subjected to societal pressures and norms to tame down the beauty that is their hair, especially in professional settings.
The problem is not Black hair — your lack of cultural competency is, especially if you find yourself doing one or more of the following:
1. Asking to touch our hair
Black hair is not a toy. No one wants someone to just come up to them and start tugging on their hair or running their fingers through it. It’s incredibly inappropriate and uncomfortable.
Medical student Rosemary Nwabuogu said that prior to medical school, she worked for an English Language Institute and “normally wore her hair in a twist, but when it was down, often got comments about people wanting to touch her hair or take pictures with her.”
She felt as if she was teaching her coworkers, all of whom had doctorates and taught a diverse set of students, about her hair and attending to their many questions and curiosities.
We get it — Black hair is cool. We’re fully aware that we are able to style our hair in ways that are artistic. However, when it comes to someone else’s body and hair, you never should feel entitled to touch it. And while asking questions can be OK, if overdone, it can be draining to your coworkers and friends. Try doing your own research and then asking if you still need more clarification.
2. Supporting hair policies that will unfairly affect Black women
I once worked for a woman who wouldn’t allow us to wear hats. It was an athletic job, so we wore sweats every day, but we couldn’t wear hats because she didn’t wear hats.
She was a non-Black woman with very short hair. Her hair routine probably consisted of 15 minutes with a blow dryer. However, the majority of her staff, who were Black, had much more complicated hair routines. Her suggestion of “just waking up earlier” didn’t mean the same thing for us.
Some mornings my hair cooperates, but other days it can be more difficult and I’m an hour late getting out the door. On the occasional bad hair day, I would’ve appreciated being able to wear a hat.
Policies like these are culturally incompetent because they don’t consider differences in hair care. They are completely tone-deaf and exclusionary. When these policy violations lead to disciplinary actions, Black women in corporate America and similar work environments will be disproportionately affected.
“I love to do hair and it’s a form of expression for me, but I’ve had to tone it way down since getting into medical school,” said Sophia Toe, a medical student at Case Western Reserve.
Be mindful of how hair policies can affect different populations at work and why they are necessary in the first place. Buzzwords like “distraction” and “professionalism” are rooted in European norms and anti-Blackness. They are additional weed-out tactics to keep Black women professionally stagnant and establish an environment of adherence or separation.
3. Making unsolicited comments about our hair
Nothing is more awkward than being in an environment where no one looks like you and someone singles you out by commenting on your hair. It’s normally irrelevant and embarrassing. Compliments are sincere, but comments like “Wow, all that weave, doesn’t it get in the way?” are rude. In fact, they are actually microaggressions.
I recently had a classmate who was singled out about their hair during a class activity. There were two Black women in my entire class, so imagine the discomfort of negative attention being drawn to something as important to our identity as our hair. These comments distract from our talents and isolate us from everyone else in the room.
Briana Williams, a medical student at LECOM Bradenton, knows this feeling all too well.
“I tend to have issues with microaggressions when my hair is big and curly,” Williams said. “People tend to run their hands through without asking, and I’ve been asked if I could put my hair in a bun instead of letting it get so big.”
This request feels like another way to ask Black women to make themselves smaller in the workplace. Volume is very natural to Black hair, and we should feel comfortable and encouraged to be our natural selves at work, instead of being asked to flatten our hair or wear a bun.
4. Making ‘jokes’ based on untrue stereotypes
Black women can have long hair. Black women can have short hair. Black women can have naturally blonde or red hair. Black women do not all wear weaves and wigs, and if they do it’s not because they hate themselves or can’t grow their hair. These are all stereotypes rooted in discrimination and misogyny.
There’s no need to make assumptions about whether our hair is real or not because it doesn’t matter — hair does not define your value as a person.
Black women have different reasons for wearing their hair in specific styles. Whatever those reasons are don’t need to be questioned, and certainly don’t need to be called out in a room full of people.
If a Black woman walks in one day with a bob and then walks in the next day with a head full of braids, no comments are necessary other than genuine compliments. You can even ask about how long it took if you really want to learn to appreciate the process. But let’s leave the jokes, assumptions, and stereotypes in the past, and move forward with letting Black women, and their hair, just be.