Good hair. We all want it. We all strive for it. I for one know that having a “good” hair day versus having a “bad” hair day can influence my entire demeanor. Good hair day? Shoulders back, head held high, perhaps even some pep in my step. Bad hair day? Slouching, hair held back firmly in place with a headband in an attempt to tame the unruly (perhaps even greasy) strands, each step taken with uncertainty and self-consciousness. But what if the style of my hair did not only affect my self-confidence, but influenced people’s perceptions of my professionalism, competency, and intelligence? What if my hair influenced my job prospects, my sway in an office, or the amount of attention paid to my opinions? These questions are not merely “what-ifs” at all; these questions reflect a very real problem faced by women of color every single day. “What?” you say, “How can a hairstyle influence whether or not you get a job?” I agree that it seems like a very silly prospect, but it is not so silly when you come to understand the reality that Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist for Louisiana news station KTBS, was fired for defending her natural hairstyle on Facebook (Wilson, “Rhonda). Or that a white Glamour magazine editor told a group of women at a New York law firm that afros are a no-no and that “political” hairstyles like dreadlocks have no business in a work setting (Moe). These instances are not only deeply offensive, but I argue that they could also be filed under “discrimination in the workplace”. Influencing women of color to style their hair in a sleek, more Eurocentric manner is just one more means of oppression, and we can add it to the long list of impossible beauty standards for women. In this essay, I will attempt to deconstruct the ideas of what people find so “offensive” about natural black hair, how these ideas construct societies perceptions of what is “professional” in the workplace and the consequences this has on employment. I will delve into the (not so) secret agenda of the media and beauty/fashion industries that aid in the vendetta against natural black hairstyles. However, before I begin my analysis, I would like to provide you with some insight into my gaze as a narrator. I, myself, am a 20 year-old middle class white woman of European descent. I have zero personal narratives surrounding oppression and discrimination based on my race, and yet these ideas repulse me to my very core. Although I have not personally experienced the plight of embracing a natural hairstyle in a Eurocentric obsessed society, I have been victim to the vitriol that comes with impossible beauty standards that women are subjected to. So even though I may not be able to empathize with these women, I can certainly sympathize with them. And although I may not be the most qualified woman to speak on this subject, it is important for me as a white woman to acknowledge my white privilege and recognize that even though these issues are not my own, it does not make them any less important. With this in mind, let us dive into this toxic pool of oppression, and emerge enlightened, angered, and demanding change.
Let’s play a game. Open any mainstream magazine you have laying around and flip to the first page with a woman present. 5 points if the woman is white. 10 points if she is of color. 3 points if her hair is straight. 5 points if her hair is wavy (not curly). 7 points if she is donning an ethnic hairdo. Any of you with 17 points? The probability is slim to none. Lets not kid ourselves into thinking that the media and advertisements do not influence society’s perceptions of what is and is not acceptable. We are conditioned by these images to believe that smooth, sleek hair is sexy, professional, and beautiful. Thus, when one does not meet these standards they are in direct incongruence to society’s perceptions of acceptability. This makes for an interesting paradox for women of color, since they are conditioned to believe that in their natural state, they are not beautiful, professional, or sexy. So, in order to be perceived as professional/sexy/beautiful, women of color believe that they have to chemically alter their hair from its natural state to reflect the more acceptable style: long, sleek, and Eurocentric. In my mind, it seems absurd (and morally/ethically wrong) that the media would waste time convincing women they aren’t good enough the way they are born, but when there is a market to capitalize on, you can bet that corporations will do anything to exploit it. People of color make up less than 20% of the population in the United States, but they purchase 80% of the hair products sold (Good Hair). On top of that, either Whites or Asians own most of the companies in the beauty industry, neither of which have a vested interest in the quality of black hair products (Good Hair). In turn, products that focus on managing frizz, creating healthy hair, or enhancing natural qualities for black hair are usually the most expensive (Good Hair). So, it literally pays to conform and chemically straighten your hair instead of spending the money and exerting the effort to maintain a healthy head of natural hair. For those of you unfamiliar with chemical straightening process, let me give you a very brief overview of how it works. Sodium hydroxide, also known as relaxer, “creamy crack”, or chemical straightener, is the agent used to permanently straighten ethnic hair. This process breaks down the proteins present in the hair thus altering its texture, supposedly making the hair more manageable (Gonzalez). The potentially dangerous nature of sodium hydroxide leaves many women with chemical burns on their scalps (to illustrate this, please note that sodium hydroxide can disintegrate an aluminum can in a mere 4 hours – clearly this explains its popularity as a common beauty treatment), which can leave also women with permanent damage to the hair follicle resulting in bald patches (Good Hair). I do not take issue with the fact that there are some women of color who feel more beautiful/professional/sexy having relaxed hair independent of societies influence, and there is nothing wrong with these women asserting their own wants and needs. However, I do begin to take issue when society conditions women of color to believe that their natural selves are not beautiful, professional, or sexy and pressure them to conform to the mainstream sleek, straight Eurocentric definition of beauty. When we as a society deem the trend of chemically altered hair as a more professional, beautiful, or sexy look, it is not a stretch to see how these ideas of professionalism and beauty can permeate into the workplace.
In Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” black comedian Paul Mooney jokes, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, white people aren’t happy.” Although Mooney is obviously kidding he isn’t too far off the mark. In 2001, a leadership course at Hampton University banned natural hairstyles such as dreadlocks and cornrows, with the belief that those types of hairstyles would prevent students from receiving corporate jobs (note that most corporations are headed by white men) (Wilson, “Hampton”). Also, as I mentioned before, during a 2007 “Do’s and Don’ts of Corporate Fashion” slideshow held at a New York law firm, a white female editor of Glamour magazine stated that dreadlocks were “truly dreadful,” and expressed shock and disgust that people of color believed it was still appropriate to wear these hairstyles (Moe). Furthermore, in another segment of “Good Hair”, Chris Rock asks a group of black high school girls whether or not they believe that having a natural hairstyle will jeopardize their chances of getting a good job. The girls admit that “an afro and a suit is a contradiction,” and that “executives won’t take you seriously because you don’t look put together.” Although it is difficult to find statistical proof that says women of color are discriminated against when they sport natural hairstyles, there is no shortage of anecdotal proof. For example, Dana Harrell, an education and sociology major at Claflin University, was told during an interview for an internship that if she wanted to have a shot at a position within the company that she would have to straighten her hair (Hill). Harrell says “The lady told me that (if) I wanted to work for her company, I couldn’t wear my hair in its natural state, not even braids. She said ‘nappy isn’t happy here.’” We can also see examples of judgment being passed on women of color based on their hairstyles in pop culture influences such as the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black.” Although this example does not directly link to the workplace, it is still a comment on women of color’s perceived professionalism. In Episode 7 of the first season, an inmate, Taystee, is appealing her conviction. Beforehand, Taystee and her fellow inmates discuss how she should style her hair, because clearly her abundance of natural black curls has got to go. The group comes up with “white-friendly” suggestions like “Michelle Obama” or “Mo’Nique from Essence magazine 2008” – to which one inmate replies “Please, ain’t enough relaxer in the world for that bullshit!” The group finally agrees that the look Taystee should strive for is “the black best friend in the white girl movie” such as “Regina King in Miss Congeniality”, “Alicia Keys in The Nanny Diaries”, “Regina King in Legally Blonde”, or “Viola Davis [in] Eat, Pray, Love” (Kohan). I admit that this scene is hilarious, but it does bring up the very problematic issue that women of color must constantly operate within the realm of what white people are most “comfortable” with. This modus operandi is inherently oppressive to people of color. Ultimately, these examples merely shed light on the tip of the iceberg that is the systematic oppression and discrimination of women of color in the workplace and their daily lives. Hopefully, by focusing on this specific type of discrimination and oppression, it will put forth actions that will culminate in the permanent eradication of all forms of discrimination based on differences in appearance and the stereotypes that accompany them.
So, what is so offensive about natural, ethnic hair in the first place? To tell the truth, I haven’t the faintest idea why people are so concerned and fascinated with ethnic hair. However, I can say arguments that natural hair is a reflection of professionalism is a viewpoint wrought with racism. Dreadlocks, cornrows, afros, braids, etc. are all historically black hairstyles, so to say that these styles display a sense of unkemptness, a lack of professionalism, or a lack of intellect, is akin to saying that being a person of color in general reflects these notions as well. In my opinion, these assertions all stem from society’s epistemic ideas surrounding people of color. To be clear, epistemology is the study of knowledge, specifically how we determine what we “know” and whether or not we can test the validity of what we believe we “know” (“Epistemology”). I put “know” in quotes to illustrate that there is almost nothing we can know for certain. Knowledge is based on our perceptions and our beliefs surrounding the validity of those perceptions. This deeply philosophical theory is hard to wrap one’s brain around, but if we can be critical of what we believe we “know”, we can begin to deconstruct stereotypes and perceptions that are false, but that are widely held up as “common knowledge” or truth. To apply this to the topic at hand, I will play devil’s advocate in the following scenario. Picture this: I am waiting for a woman to arrive for her interview at my business. I have her application sitting in front of me and I know by looking at it beforehand that she is exceptionally qualified for the position: good grades, excellent letters of recommendation, and substantial previous experience. However, upon her walking into my office, I notice that not only is she a woman of color but she also wears her hair in a natural afro. Society has conditioned me to believe that people with afros are inherently not as qualified, competent, or intelligent because people with afros subscribe to an unkempt style that oozes a sense of laziness, a lack of intellect, and an unprofessional demeanor. Even though I know that on paper she is qualified for the job, in person I know that she is not because of her appearance. Thus, I dismiss her for the job based on her lack of perceived professionalism, not her actual, quantifiable experience and qualities that make her a candidate for the job. This example also provides a framework for the idea of visibility vs. invisibility. This contradictory binary sets up people of color in a way that is both highly visible and inherently invisible. These visible aspects are what make people of color “stand out in a crowd”, essentially how they are defined and identified as a minority, i.e. the color of their skin, the style of their hair, etc., which is usually how we construct our opinions on people of color (think racial profiling). The invisible, internal aspects that construct people of color on a unique basis are obviously overshadowed by the visible aspects of how society defines the race as a whole, via stereotypes such as lazy, uneducated, unprofessional, etc. These “visible” aspects are rarely substantiated, and they are also the only aspects taken into consideration when stereotypically defining people of color. With all of these ideas in mind, we can begin to understand how society’s influence over our perceptions can twist what we know to be true into a false idea of what we perceive to be true.
With all of these points in mind, it is easy to conclude that racism, oppression, and discrimination are all currently thriving in our society. However, I do remain hopeful that one day we will be able to eliminate all of these problematic frameworks that operate in the United States. The first step in doing so is education. When I first discussed the topic of this essay with my peers who are not of color, many had never given a second thought to the idea of perceived professionalism; but once they were allowed a moment for analysis and self reflection, they agreed how problematic it is as a means of oppression and discrimination in our society. The next step is action. At first, as a white woman, I felt that I had no business placing myself into this conversation that deals almost exclusively with women of color; but upon further reflection, I saw how wrong I was in this assumption. These women are dealing with a symptom of oppression that almost all women know too well: the pressure to be something you are not, or cannot be. Like most women, I have been subjected to the media’s impossible beauty standards, self-consciousness surrounding my weight, my height, and even my femininity. Although my experiences are very different and arguably less oppressive than those that women of color face, there is no reason that I cannot channel my inner anger, frustration, and disappointment with society to help fuel their agenda for equality. There is no “rule” of feminism (or at least, there shouldn’t be) that maintains a hierarchy that determines which issues are more important to attain and in what order we should address them. So, although solidarity across racial lines can present some problems, I truly believe if we do not merely “set aside” our differences, but embrace our diverse backgrounds, experiences, and methods of oppression, we can connect with a much greater audience, unify a much greater community, and yell a much louder message. For all of these reasons, I encourage women of all backgrounds to proudly support one another regardless of skin color, hairstyle, or origin because if we do our “One day….” dreamy description of equality may not be so far into the future after all.
“Epistemology.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.
Gonzalez, Susonnah. “Hair Relaxers: The Facts.” Hair Relaxers: The Facts. NaturallyCurly.com, 15 Nov. 2010. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.
Good Hair. Dir. Jeff Stilson and Jenny Hunter. By Lance Crouther and Chris Rock. Prod. Nelson George. Perf. Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Al Sharpton. Madman, 2009. DVD.
Hill, India. “Viewpoint: How Is Natural, African-American Hair Viewed in the Workplace? | USA TODAY College.” Web log post. USA Today Educate. Redd Lipstick Blog, 1 July 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Kohan, Jenji. “Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 7, “Blood Donut”" Netflix. Lionsgate Television. 11 July 2013. Television.
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Wilson, Julee. “Hampton University’s Cornrows And Dreadlock Ban: Is It Right?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Aug. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Wilson, Julee. “Rhonda Lee Fired: TV Station Responds To Meteorologist’s Claim She Was Fired For Facebook Comments About Her Natural Hair.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.