Natural Hair and Professionalism. An oxymoron?

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.

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31 Responses to Natural Hair and Professionalism. An oxymoron?

  1. Von says:

    This conversation bother’s me too. We aren’t being judged by our own hair unless the individual doing the judging happens to look just me which is the main one doing it. We are judged bt our performance and not the superficial. I doubt if Ursula Burns and other executives worried more about their hair more so instead of what’s in it they would not be in the executive suites, would they? People who worry about what other’s think don’t really define themselves if they continually worry only about the superficial.

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  3. Sula says:

    I recently attended the NY Urban League’s Champions of Diversity breakfast for my company. Of the four black women sitting at my table, three had natural hairstyles. We represent a Fortune 100 company, across several business groups. Moral of the story, be excellent and that’s what most will focus on. Most in corporate America don’t know or don’t care. They do know if you can do produce.
    And, so many times, the people posing these questions have never worked in Corporate America. If they did, the halls I walked would be a lot more diverse.

    • Lena says:

      I can’t agree more! It seems that the people who worry about natural hair in corporate america are the ones not currently working in it. I work in a corporate environment and have natural hair and nothing has been said to me, except by my African American counterparts. What corporate america wants – is for you to produce.

      • Cami says:

        I absolutely agree. I also work in corporate I do not wear my hair natural, but it’s never been an issue or a conversation with my fellow colleagues who wears their hair natural. The bottom line is in Corporate all that matters is that you deliver..

        • Rebecca says:

          I think that this is an important matter. I recently decided to cross over to the natural side with a tiny afro colored in a warm brown tone and I work in executive education. Many of my co-workers, mostly white, profusely congratulated me on my new style. The word I heard a lot was “cute”. My family and friends have mixed opinions though mostly positive. I’ve got more people in my circle contemplating going natural.

          I find that more people at work, especially new people I meet, tend to linger their gazes a little longer at the top of my head. I’ve had one man(of hispanic origin) visibly display his surprise at my hair. Another man (white and head of a wealthy venture) visible show his disgust for not only my hair but me in general. I’m far less self-concious now but I do feel a real and added pressure to prove myself more and harder in the work place. I have made the decision to continue my self-discovery process by fully embracing who I am and I’m determined to keep doing that while still excelling in my profession.

      • Lyza says:

        Uneblviaeble how well-written and informative this was.

  4. Dianta says:

    This is the problem with (not all) but many African Americans in this country! We are always trying to fit in, blend in, and change who we are thinking that we can somehow elevate ourselves in society. Just because you have a seat at the table does not mean you are apart of the family.I have natural hair and I have received more positive feedback from people who don’t look like me. What does that tell us…White people may not always be the problem..we are! It is our own self hatred that has slowed our progress. If someone wont hire you because you decided to wear your hair the way GOD created it, they DIDN’T WANT YOU ANYWAY! Tell them to take it up with god and leave you alone. Look under the surface, and you will see that its more than just hair– They don’t like you at all, hair is just an easier way of putting it. BLACK PEOPLE WAKE UP, Its almost like were ashamed to admit that the blood running through our veins came from slaves w/ nappy/kinky hair! It is time that we start defining OUR OWN beauty. How long will we continue to praise the physical features of other the ethnicities while neglecting our own. How long will we continue to let people tell us how to dress, how to talk, how to walk, what neighborhoods we should live in, and more. Hell, you might as well put a leash around your neck and bark, better yet call yourself a slave(at least to society). Who are you, Who am I? Relaxed or Natural– Are we not still brothers and sisters? underneath all that chemical processing, weaving, etc..Is your hair not wooly too?I refuse to allow anybody to put shackles on me! We went natural because we have that right to be who we are…and I don’t see any statistics anywhere stating ” black women with natural hair cannot get a job a good job”….Nor, did God ever say that he made a mistake while creating us. So let it go, and let your hair fall however you please.. I have my own business and I make six figures working with other companies who respect me for my mind and not my hair, and my husband loves the fact that his fingers don’t get tangled up in my weave or that he can playfully splash water on me and not get cursed out. So I’m not buying into the excuses for why a black women don’t want to go natural…Just say you like having straight hair, but don’t bash your other naturals just to justify wearing straight hair. Just do you!

    • Cheeky D says:

      Wow! I just read a few of the comments and yours was the most striking. I am not making six figures but I am doing okay so far—-working as an independent contractor. When I worked as an employee, I truly wasn’t valued for what I brought to the table (desk!) but now that I work independently, I cannot even describe how respected I am for the work I do. Back to the topic though! I’ve been wearing my hair naturally for over 16 years and I have converted a few sisters along the way. I recall one last year who was wearing a wig because she didn’t think her hair was “acceptable.” I told her that as long as she herself liked it, and if her husband liked it, the rest of the world could just deal with it. In a month this lady went from pretty to beautiful (exterior + interior esteem). Self-loathing? I agree with that analysis…and if that is truly the reason why so many of our people (men too!) are locked into chemical processing, then we are missing some steps as we raise our babies. Tell them their curly GOD made hair is beautiful and mean it; they will believe you! Especially if your hair is the same!

  5. Pingback: Can We Move On Already? Why Are People STILL Obsessing About Natural Hair? | Another Newyork Times

  6. myeshamyesha says:

    Wow! What a conversation! And truly needed it is. This is my second go around of being natural and the first time my parents and my sisters drove me nuts about it. So I just relaxed it. But now, I am natural again and my mom loves it and is thinking about going natural and my sister has already “taken the plunge”, they even compliment my hairstyles now. (I just sit back and think…”truly what a paradox.” I think they realize now that my natural hair makes me happy and the perm, weave and tracks make me truly miserable. Now to the meat of this thing….The first time I went natural which was in college my white friends thought it was “the coolest thing EVER”…as they would say. The conversation and admiration of my hair was actually a starting point of many new friendships. I was even voted president of the Art History student union that year. I was the only black. But still, my family and friends were driving me nuts. “I’ll NEVER get a job in corporate America,” “I look crazy,” and on and on. Since then, I’ve obtained 2 degrees (hoorah), have made decent money in this country, own my own business (art gallery), successful artist and I’ve dined with very influential people, who from what I’ve experienced don’t care what my hair looks like. (Maybe they do) But from what I’ve experienced,  they are interested in my mind. Now, here is my own deep self-revealing part….I still feel self-concious sometimes when my art students (young beautiful black kids) look at my hair and say “Ms. Francis, you need a perm.” They have a deep seated disdain for my hair and sometimes it makes me question my choice. But then I begin to understand that they were like I was at that age, I hated nappy, curly, kinky hair. I don’t know how to cure this deep seated hate for how one’s hair grows out of their heads. I just know that I feel happy this way and I’ll continue on. People have a right to make their own choices and feel how they want to feel about themselves, as for me and my house, we’ll just love the way the Creator saw fit to make us. That’s it. One last thing. I really dislike this notion that women who wear their hair natural are some kind of militant rebels. It sucks. I don’t see myself as any of that. I’m just naturally me. That’s it.

  7. Beverly Moore says:

    I decided to go natural about 5 years ago, not to make a statement, but I was tired of my chemically straighten hair coming out. I did some research and discovered that it was a “rare” side effect of medication I was taking. I wore my hair cropped short at first, but for the last year and a half, I have worn “two-stranded” twists. My hair is healthy, and I do not suffer from breakage anymore. (and I still take the same medication!)

  8. Natoya says:

    Question: why wasn’t money considered into why some people go natural? I was natural since my teens years but I always had my hair pressed. As I began to live on my own and my significant other lost his job, I just couldn’t afford to go to the salon every two weeks. Yet, I still would work hard and cut back to save up my money to get my hair done. Then, I did research and found that one of the ways to get my hair healthy (it became damaged) was to stay away from heat. Also, without having to go to the hair dresser I have more money in my pocket to put towards my home. So, while people may say you must straighten or perm your hair to get a job, the reality is some people don’t have the funds to do so right before an interview. Going completely natural has taught me how to do my hair and not be so dependent on something I can’t afford. 

  9. I have natural hair and I have not been employed for 5 months now. I never had a problem with my natural hair but if I went to an interview and was told that I could have the job if I permed my hair…. beauty shop here I come. I am willing to get a perm long enough to take the focus off of my head and indulge them in the top quality work that I do. Then I will be back to au natural in no time. Sometimes you have to prove yourself to get in the door and I have no problem with that. I can do my job and wear natural hair without a problem. It is true that most negative comments come from other black people and who think that you are just wearing it as a fad or fashion statement. I wear my hair natural because that’s how I am most comfortable. I think that if we were all more comfortable with ourselves then hair wouldn’t matter. But some people open their mouth just have to have something to say.

  10. Charlene Coleman says:

    My hair has been natural for 90% of my life. I made a mistake and relaxed my hair because I thought it was going to be easier to take care of, I found out it wasn’t, but I have never liked straight hair. I have had a number of employed positions as well as consulting positions. I make well over the six figure mark and I am not a sales person. If a company is not going to hire you because of your hair, then they have a problem because you are African American period, and why would you want to work there? When I’m at work it’s about business, nothing else, so therefore my work is professional and nothing else matters. I say the same thing as one of the other posters. If someone has a problem with my hair, they way it grows out of my head, the way I was born, and the way God made me, then they should take it up with God and leave me alone as I don’t have a problem with it at all. Everyday when I look in the mirror and see my hair, I think what a beautiful thing he has made, every kink, every curl, and every nap. So the people who think you should straighten your hair to appease someone else will be sorely disappointed when they find out how they really think about you, hair or not. Next.

  11. Sharon Johnston says:

    After reading the article and the comments I can’t agree more. Being a black woman who wears a crown of locs I have experienced that more of my brothers and sisters as opposed to whites look at or view my locs unacceptable in the work place. I embrace my true beauty as well as my natural beauty and strongly believe that we are so much more than our hair. If you work in an industry that defines your worth and value by your hair. Then I say, give them the true definition of you and your worth by staying true to Yourself and your Natural Hair. That is what I have choosen to do and will continue to do in and out of Corporate America.

  12. Ginger Herring says:

    What about just being sick and tired of getting up every other Saturday for 20 years? I just decided in December that I wasn’t going another Saturday. I like to sleep in sometimes. I loved my curls and may go back one day, but not anytime soon. The freedom has been amazing. I’m at the stage of my life where it really doesn’t matter what you think. I love that I don’t have to say to my husband….”my hair”. LOL I am also looking for a new job. Just got my M.S. in Counseling and if someone has a problem with my hair, then I really don’t want to be working with them. Many women are ready to do something different, but need to see other women. I’m black and beautiful, and think that I’m even sexier…LOL

  13. Thank you for writing about this. Seriously, people need to wake up. Having natural hair will not stop you from succeeding. Many times, it is black people who are the ones that are making it an issue. Natural hair is fine for a professional environment. To say that it is unprofessional is to say that our very essence is unacceptable. Natural hair is natural beauty and women who wear their hair natural are succeeding in many different fields. It is time for us to stop holding ourselves back. Natural is both beautiful and professional.

  14. Roger T says:

    Depending on the choice, natural or not, should exist as a decision only for the individual. I have traveled the World and find women of many nationalities wearing their hair in many styles. Do I love all of the styles, no; however, I can appreciate the differences.
    Where does the real problem exist; is it the black woman/man or non-black woman/man? Honestly, why do we even care? Let’s be honest, we black people sometimes look to varies things to define the essence of our being. Whether our appearance, our hair, our education, our careers, our children, etc. define us, should not matter to anyone but us individually. Let us stop putting focus on what we think is or is not acceptable and simply acknowledge our existence, differences and choices and continue to be as successful as we have proven to be. As a man wearing a short haircut, I have been guilty of feeling a more natural look could interfere with my corporate progression, but as I become older, I see we will be accepted or denied based on many factors. Therefore, we should love our choices and ourselves and regardless of what makes us successful or not, respect our choice to be the person, we choose to be today or tomorrow.

  15. Trudy says:

    Employers judge by superficial garbage all day. Adding race and hairstyle is simply another way to focus on personality and style over passion and substance. Perhaps not fitting in and walking away from corporate America to build Black startups, cooperative businesses and the like is what is needed. You cannot truly fit in to a place that doesn’t want you there and will remind you of that daily. I was treated like trash with a perm and natural hair at jobs. At the end of the day, what I checked on the form, and personality-focused businesses, not skill focused ones are why the workplace was uncomfortable. Not once was I treated better during times my hair was relaxed. Not once. Not once was I viewed more professional. Either way, my corporate experience was plagued by racial and gender discrimination, wage discrimination and other legal/moral atrocities.

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  18. Saidah says:

    I think also, it’s hard for someone without “natural” African hair to visually equate the “natural” look with “doing” your hair. I’d say the vast majority of women (black or otherwise) style their hair daily. Many of them straighten it daily. It isn’t really true that “Straight hair = professional.” “Styled hair = professional,” because styled hair is equated with putting effort into polishing your look for a day of doing important work and/or meeting important people. For many people, the idea of “natural hair” is contradictory to “styled hair.” Very few women get up in the morning and wear their hair “naturally;” if so, there would be a heck of a lot more frizz and flat in the ladies room, trust me. Case in point; many Caucasian women with naturally curly hair straighten it… and then run a curling iron through it!

    Basically, the point is, no one thinks it’s necessarily appropriate for people to come into the office in their “natural” state. We expect men and women to look as though they put significant effort into “dressing to impress.” Whether or not women are actually styling their hair to get natural looks is irrelevant; most people don’t understand that people actually put effort into having what appears to be frizzy, unkempt hair.

  19. jilly says:

    This is why I will NEVER move to America. I can understand a bit of this issue, but I don’t have the strength to wrap my head around all of it. In Suriname, where I’m from, there is a bit of pressure that comes from Y’ALL to do stuff to our hair, but it doesn’t affect us anywhere near as much as it does you. If I walk down the street or into work with my afro, no one would think any more or less of me for it unless I wasn’t really rocking it. I really wish I could solve this issue for y’all cause I’m here living the good, free, natural life and you guys are killing my buzz with all of this self-hatred.

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  21. Renorda says:

    I have truly enjoyed all the comments that have been posted. I decided to go natural about 8 months ago. It has been a wake-up call for me. I was that black woman that believed and was taught that there are certain clothes and/or hairstyles you can not take into corporate world. I am not in corporate world but I am an attorney that represents criminal defendants in State and Federal Court. In Federal Court, I was the first black woman (2011, not good), to get approved to be a part of a panel to receive cases. This role is very exciting but it comes with a lot of responsibility. Of course, the first thing I thought was: my hair. I was afraid to stand in front of a judge and be judged about my hair and that negatively affect my client. I decided to wear a wig to court to represent my clients. Last week, I decided no more wigs. I have been appointed to represent the clients and so I belong here, natural hair or not. It was a breakthrough and freedom that was so remarkable that it is unexplainable. I understand the fears that some women feel. But I say to those fears now: Stand on the Word of God and know that you were wonderfully and uniquely made. Everything that God made was good and very good. So whatever you decide, God gave you the desire. Therefore, in God’s sight it is very good. Remember you are serving God, not man and God does not judge you by your looks. Be blessed all.

  22. DebNBrooklyn says:

    When African women were forcibly brought to this land, no one asked her if she wanted to pack the accessories that were used to maintain her hair. When African men were picking cotton from sun to sun the African woman was right next to him picking as well. So in addition to not having the neccesary tools, what time did she have for personal hair grooming. Fastforward, let’s be careful absolving white folk of a responsibility here. You can’t constantly proselytize one beauty ideal, then step back and say YOU accept Black beauty, it’s Black folk doing it to themselves. And let’s not tell lies, many of us are now working with white females in the corporate work space and SHE is not always comfortable with a young black women not trying to imitate her. SHE is not always comfortable with Black females being beautiful and desirable in all her natural splendor. Let’s not forget why the fat, dark, asexual mammy caricature came about. White men needed to do something to reassure white females that she was still the most desired. As for today, what’s the point of doing everything you think needs to be done to get and keep a job is it’s literally killing us. The depression and high blood pressure among Black women, especially the few of us in “corporate America” is obviously not a price we should be willing to pay. We need to do what’s not going to wrack our conscience : if you’re natural and constantly worrying about it, that’s no good. If you’re constantly worried about paying for your “do” and whether or not you can do activities, that’s no good. So do what will maintain you’re mental health.

    P.S. Natural hair styles are not limited to locs or wild afros. Natural hair pulled back in a bun is just as neat and “professional” as straightened hair pulled back into a bun.

  23. goldenhoneychild says:

    this is slave talk. i am unable to swallow the bitter pill of self hatred in the name of getting and keeping a job. i’d rather struggle starting my own business than let some idiot tell me that conforming is the way for me to get ahead. what kind of destructive environment do we live in, where we are teaching future leaders to STILL in 2012, go along to get along? i hate it. and i refuse. how have we as black people, or ANY people been fighting for freedom of all things self for all these years, and STILL talking about getting jobs with people who won’t accept us? CREATE SOMETHING. WTF?!?!

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