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Black Women Debate “Appropriate” Hair-Styles for Corporate America

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"Black Women: Their Hair and the Workplace" is an event that was held at Georgia State Univ. that discussed how black women should best style their hair in a corporate environment.

Photography: Nhophotos.com

by Maria Lloyd

African-American women in professional careers often share stories of their frequent battle with their hair and the workplace. Because women of African descent are the minority at most large corporations, we are often questioned about our hair. If we’re natural, our co-workers are curious to know how the hair turns into an afro. If we add hair extensions, our co-workers are curious to know how we keep the hair attached to the scalp. If we wear locs, we’re often perceived as a “militant, pro-black” woman, which (unfortunately) makes people of other ethnic groups feel uncomfortable.

Despite Corporate America’s attempts to be more diverse, more than 35% of African Americans say they “need to compromise their authenticity” to conform to their company’s standards of demeanor or style, according to a new research report from the Center for Talent Innovation. An alarming 40% of African Americans said they feel like outsiders in their corporate culture — compared to only 26% of Caucasians. One African American executive bluntly describes their experience in Corporate America as: “…a theater, and I try to remember to stay in character.”

In fear of being labeled as the stereotypical “angry black woman,” career-oriented black women often suffer from what Ella Bell, a professor at Tuck School of Business, deems as “bicultural stress” — the need to hide their real selves at the office. Georgia State University recently hosted a discussion centered solely around black women’s struggle with their hair and the workplace. The event, titled “Black Women, Their Hair & The Work Place – A Dialogue,” provided strategic advice from panelists on how to transform their hair. Natasha Daniels, a legislative analyst for the City of Atlanta, told the 100+ attendees: “You can pull your hair back in a nice bun and it’ll be accepted and it can look polished.” Nakisha McNeal, a student at GSU who sports locs, challenged the panelists’ advice. “You’re talking about being polished and (having) interview skills and yet no one is addressing the fact that natural black hair has been traditionally seen as not polished on its own whether it’s well cared for or not. So basically it’s all about maintaining the Eurocentric standpoint.”

The “hair issue” for African-Americans in the corporate environment has an affect on black men as well. The dean at Hampton University’s School of Business, Sid Credle,  decided to ban male students from wearing dreadlocks and cornrows. Credle argues that the ban has been effective in helping students land corporate jobs and that they should look the part when searching for employment. Conformity should not have a place on any college campus, especially on the campus of an HBCU.

Aside from building wealth in our own communities, investment in black entrepreneurship could probably drastically decrease, or abolish, the day-to-day stresses of identifying with African culture at the workplace.

Do you believe African-American women should wear their hair a certain way to keep a job?

Maria Lloyd (@WritingsByMaria) is the Business Manager for the Your Black World Network. She is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University and an advocate of dismantling the prison industrial complex, increasing entrepreneurship, reforming education, and eradicating poverty.