Recently, I have been challenging myself to show up in my most authentic self in every space. For me that means allowing my youth to shine through in work conversations, being more playful in my interactions, and wearing my natural hair instead of my usual wigs. As a dark-skinned Black woman, I find that my hypervisibility in the workplace already takes people time to accept. To make it easier, I tend to wear a straight, black, wavy wig to be more “digestible” for others so that I can focus on work projects. As a DEI leader, I’m aware of the many ways that Black women everywhere conform their appearance to be taken seriously in the workplace.
At a previous employer, I wore my natural hair and braids and twists for the first few months on the job; then, one day wore a short, wavy, black wig. That day, I received several comments about how “nice” and “professional” my new hairstyle was. I’m not alone – cases filed by Black workers about discrimination against their natural hair in the workplace have filled courthouses for more than forty years. Most comments about Black women’s hair that feel “othering” are not explicitly negative but are microaggressions that signal that our hair is unfamiliar, inappropriate for the workplace, and unprofessional.
A study found bias against natural hair limits career opportunities for Black women. Another study found that over half of the Black women surveyed felt like they had to wear their hair straight in a job interview to be successful. Black women transform their appearance daily with wigs, heat, or perms to adopt a European style hair texture, and it’s not an easy feat. Wigs are expensive, heat may cause permanent damage, and perms require toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer. The bottom line is that exploring hairstyles should be a choice for Black women, not a requirement to get a job or a strategy to avoid microaggressions.
Recently, the CROWN Act, first introduced to the US. House of Representatives in 2019 and signed into law in 2023 in twenty states, helps to ensure that Black women and other non-White women can legally wear their hair naturally and in braids, twists, and other styles. This Act “prohibits discrimination based on a person’s hair texture or hairstyle if that style or texture is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin.” While this measure brings us a step closer to inclusive practices in the workplace, it’s disturbing to know that Black women are still fighting to show up to work as ourselves.
Say This Instead
Before sharing a comment about a Black woman’s hair, rethink the comment and ask yourself:
- Are you signaling with your comment that European hairstyles are more professional?
- What hairstyles do you feel more comfortable commenting on and which ones do you say nothing about?
Share a comment only after self-evaluation to ensure you don’t signal that Black natural hairstyles are unprofessional.