Stop saying it's "just hair" when the federal court once ruled it legal for employers to ban dreadlocks. Stop saying it's "just hair" when young girls in middle school are getting suspended for wearing their natural hair. Stop saying it's "just hair" when black women are getting fired from their jobs for the natural styles they choose to wear in their hair, not because of their actions. Stop saying it's "just hair" when the kids in my predominately white swimming class would stare and laugh at me when my afro turned kinky once it hit the water.
Although some may think hair is merely a physical identifier, hair and the black identity mean so much more. There's more to black hair than what simply meets the eye. There's always a story tied to the hair that sprouts from our head; it's a journey full of ups, downs, turns, and roadblocks. Oftentimes, this story is far from a smooth-sailing tale. As we go through life, our hair is met with many changes, which means something different for everyone. It could mean finally transitioning your chemically relaxed or permed hair, which is a treatment to make your curly hair permanently straight, to natural. It could mean strengthening your strands from years of heat damage because you decided to straighten your hair too much. Or it could mean that you've decided to embrace your natural hair and everything that comes with it.
Changing our hair can mean dealing with the blank stares, mindless questions, and microaggressions in the workplace from non-black peers when you walk in with natural hair and no one else looks like you. This reality is especially heightened when you work in corporate America, a historically white, patriarchal space full of people who often look the same. A recent Harvard Business Review study found that there are only three black CEOs in Fortune 500 companies and zero black women running them. With this lack of diversity, the celebration of black hair, which encompasses countless black hairstyles, in the workplace, and elsewhere, is a complex and challenging narrative.
It's 2018, and the thought of wearing natural hair in buttoned-up corporate America instills a perpetual sense of shame and fear in the minds of many black women. Prayerfully, a time will come when black women are not discriminated against or laced with judgment because of the way we choose to wear our hair. True progress will happen when the realization that black hair, in every single setting, symbolizes resistance, freedom, love, fight, and power comes to fruition.
Below, 22 brilliant women of color share what it's like wearing natural styles in corporate America. To take in all of their experiences, keep reading.
Aysha, Finance Controller
Her experience: "I can definitely say I have come a long way when it comes to being comfortable wearing my natural hair in a corporate setting. I was always afraid of how they would perceive me and the reactions I would get. In previous jobs, I would never wear my hair out in its natural state because of that, and it is because I knew for a fact it would cause a problem or be a topic of discussion at the workspace; even though this was never verbally discussed to me, I just knew. I think also because I never ever tried to wear it out, that made others feel or have that power over me to make me think that it wasn’t accepted."
Her advice: "At my current job, I decided that I am going to wear my natural fro when I feel like it and how I feel like it. And luckily, I work in a creative setting where people are more open-minded, and no one has ever said or expressed any concern with my hair. In fact I get compliments all the time. I think the power really is in your hands, when you show people by wearing your hair confidently out that you are not going to discriminate against me for the way my hair grows out of my scalp. It helps them hear you loud and clear. My advice would be to do what makes you feel comfortable. Some people might actually not want to wear their hair out at work, and some do. If you do decide to let your hair out, the way your hair grows out of your scalp should never be a reason to be discriminated against. I mean, can you imagine if someone with naturally bone straight hair was told they couldn’t show up to work with their bone straight hair and that they had to curl it to be presentable? How absurd would that sound?"
Her experience: "At my current company, I feel grateful for how accepted my natural hair is given its laid-back culture; but my experience hasn't always been this way. At my first post-grad job, I was one of four black women in the entire company. I would cringe when meetings with senior leadership started out with comments like 'which Taylor would show up today?'referring to my many hairstyles versus business strategies. I then remember straightening my natural hair for the first time at my next company and was complimented on how professional I looked that day."
Her advice: "My experiences wearing my natural hair in the workplace taught me to not take ignorant comments to heart but most importantly to be more confident. I still sometimes catch myself thinking twice before deciding to put in some box braids or wearing my puff in certain office environments, but I will not adjust myself because others don't understand."
Keli, Administrative Assistant and Beauty Brand Founder of Kaike
Her experience: "My hair is long and very thick, and I tend to wear it out, or up in a puff. I notice that for the most part, I am complimented on my hair, especially when wearing a new hairstyle. There have been occasional microaggressions, where it has been suggested that I straighten or 'smooth it down' because my hair is so 'big.'"
Her advice: "I've learned that most operate out of ignorance, but I don't allow that to affect me. My hair and I do take up a lot of space, but I don’t shy away from that. I embrace the attention my hair brings, and use it as opportunities to make myself, and my talent, more visible. I dismantle the stereotype that my appearance is tied to my performance."
Janine, Government Official
Her experience: "I have had white people touch my hair without my permission, and rarely some would ask. My response is to repeat their actions. I have also received stares and whispers from white and black women. Many black women have offered to braid or straighten my hair, called me nappy, or asked, 'When is your next hair appointment?' Overall, my hair is a science project or seen as unprofessional."
Her advice: "I believe people think I am their pet or responsibility. Their behaviors are a reminder that black women are not always free to be and people are colonized. In the beginning of my professional and natural hair journey, I wondered if I would make it in corporate America because I gave too much of my energy to the nonsense. Now, you can't tell me anything! Sisters, rock your natural hair proudly. You were beautifully and wonderfully made. Therefore, you must walk unapologetically in your purpose."
Her experience: "In the workplace, I'm grateful that I have never had to deal with blatant discrimination when it has to do with my hair, but I have dealt with it in other ways. I have heard things about me that were not said directly such as, 'That girl's hair is different every time I see her,' and 'Why does she always have to change her hair?' I must say, I do get annoyed by these comments, but I can't take much offense to them. My hair literally got damaged because I straightened my hair so much for the office. I would still have it out, but I would blow it out so that it could look more "tamed." Most recently, I cut my hair so it can get back to its natural health, Short hair has given me the ability to be much more experimental with my hairstyles. I began to get into wigs. I wear one natural curly wig, which is very big, and a friend of mine who also has natural hair asked me if I wore it to work, and my response was no just because it is too much. I must say, although no one says anything to me, I do always get looks. This time last year when my hair was longer, I would make sure I do my wash and go's mid-week because after the next few days my hair would get too big, and I just didn't want to feel uncomfortable."
Her advice: "Do your best to stay true to you. I know that it can be super hard to fully let your hair down, especially if you're the only one in the office or on your team who is of color, but try it once. After the first time you wear your natural hair, you will see how comfortable you feel. If you don't feel comfortable wearing it down, maybe try protective styles as an alternative. However, the one thing I don't think you should do is do what I did, which is straighten your hair to remove the attention that you never asked for. I have come to realize that not all attention is bad attention. Many times, people are just curious and instead of asking you about yourself, they just stare. This means their issue truly has nothing to do with you. Your hair does not affect your job and how well you can do your job."
Ashleigh, Dental Administrator
Her experience: "This is only my second year working at this company and in corporate America as a whole. I have been a kinky, natural-haired girl from the very beginning. I do get the occasional 'How do you get your hair like that?' and 'Wow, you changed your hair again!' It happens every time I decide to show up with box braids. It's nothing I can't roll my eyes about and ignore."
Her advice: "It almost gives me a small boost of confidence when some people comment. Of course, at times it's annoying, but occasionally there are some genuine people who truly do not understand what I mean when I say that I twist my hair every night. Not everyone's questions or comments are meant as a jab, so I view their curiosity that way instead. Truly just go for it. We can't always anticipate what anyone's going to say about our hair. The only thing that matters is that you love your natural hair. If all the other white girls are wearing their "natural hair," why can’t you?"
Jasmine, Administrative Assistant
Her experience: "Choosing to wear my natural hair at my job has been interesting because I am one of three black women that are employed there. My job has a few older white clients who tend to be a little more dismissive when I wear my natural hair as opposed to when I wear long weaves."
Her advice: "Initially this made me afraid to wear my natural hair because I thought people did not see it as professional. Now I know my actual professionalism speaks for itself. Work on being comfortable with yourself no matter how long it takes—our bodies, our facial features, and our hair are not indicators of whether we are competent enough to fill corporate spaces."
Marion, Assistant Buyer
Her experience: "I work with mostly women, but as a black woman, I feel like my natural hair gets noticed in ways my white peers' hair doesn't. Comments like, 'How did you get your hair like that?' or 'Can I touch it?' are expected. It's frustrating to constantly have to explain yourself and your culture. The reality is, I switch between my curlier texture in a low bun or flat-ironed hair."
Her advice: "You shouldn't let work environments dictate how you wear your hair. Those who judge are on the wrong side of culture, and they'll have to catch up eventually. Do what makes you happy!"
Her experience: "I've been fortunate enough to work in traditional corporate work environments that foster diversity and inclusion, and I think it's important to work in spaces that truly support this. I once went on an interview, and the interviewer, a white male in his mid-30s, stopped me halfway through and told me that he felt like my current look wasn't the 'real' me and asked me to pull out my phone and show him a selfie! He was baffled at the fact that I would straighten my hair for interviews and told me that any company that questions my work ethic because I choose to wear my hair curly should not be a place I should go work. Since then, I've proudly worn my hair in its natural state for every interview."
Her advice: "Your natural hair does not affect your ability to work, and you should not alter your hair to conform to society's view of what is 'acceptable.' The hair that grows out of your scalp will always be acceptable."
Kimberly, Digital Marketing Manager
Her experience: "Early in my career, I mainly wore my hair straight to avoid bringing unnecessary attention to myself. In the past, wearing natural and protective styles in the workplace led to my hair becoming a topic of discussion, which made me uncomfortable and felt disruptive. As I became more confident in myself and my craft, I felt able to establish a strong personal brand and show that wearing natural hair does not in any way define or detract from my quality of work or professionalism. With my current role, I've been intentional about wearing my natural hair during the interview process, in my company headshot, and most days on the job. I feel confident in my natural hair, and it's a way for me to bring my authentic self to work.
Her advice: "I think every woman has to consider her specific circumstances as some professions and companies may be more or less accepting than others. Yet, my own experiences have taught me that in the right environment, it is possible to excel while bringing your authentic self to the workplace."
Her experience: "I didn't start wearing my natural hair in a work setting until two years into my career for fear of how others would look at me or what others would think about me because of it. When I finally entered a company that empowered women and made women of all ethnicities and backgrounds feel like they belonged, I began wearing my natural hair at work and never looked back. Ever since, I've been lucky enough to work at companies that not only celebrate the natural hair movement but encourage it. And for that, I'm forever grateful. However, as a woman of color, I know these discriminatory microaggressions exist in the workforce and it absolutely kills me that embracing your natural locks is still frowned upon in 2018."
Her advice: "My advice for my fellow sisters is to love yourself, girl. Love your curly hair, love your kinky hair, and love your frizz! Some say hair is just hair, and for the most part, it is. But for women of color, it symbolizes so much more to rock your natural locks in a corporate setting. It symbolizes freedom, inner peace and taking a stand for the beauty you and your fellow queens were born with. If the company you’re at is passing judgment or discriminating against you even in the smallest form for wearing your natural hair at work, you’re at the wrong company. Remind yourself every day that wearing your hair in its natural state is a freedom you so rightly deserve. If your job can't get on board with that, let's find you another job, sis."
Stephanie, Account Executive
Her experience: "During my time in HR and higher education, I've had fairly unique experiences. Two black women, a VP and director, wore their natural hair almost daily. Seeing them be so self-assured and in positions of power made it easier to embrace my own hair in the workplace."
Her advice: "My advice is to be unapologetically you. When we're accepting of ourselves and self-confident, we create a culture of acceptance around us and help dismantle the ridiculous taboo of natural hair in the workplace."
Kourtney, Marketing Associate
Her experience: "I can remember in college subconsciously feeling this pressure to straighten my hair for an internship interview with a publication, but I promised myself that I would wear my hair natural during the first week to acclimate the people in my office. Funny enough, the person who interviewed me was awesome and we built a good rapport. However, it took them weeks, after I finally straightened my hair again, to recognize me. They said to me,"Now, I know who you are!"
Her advice: "These sorts of experiences have taught me that my feelings are valid and that a person's ignorance will not define my work experiences. My hair won't stop my skills, my work ethic, or my checks. I now rock a low fade to work. While I know it can be frustrating, my advice for women of color is to meet ignorance with knowledge. It doesn't need to be a dissertation on the history of black hair, but at least no one can say they did not know once you educate them."
Enoma, Media Relations Specialist
Her experience: "In the beginning of my natural hair journey, I was truly nervous. Now, I do not care. I wear braids, my natural hair, and wigs. I was just starting over and decided to do the "big chop" again. At work, I always receive comments like, 'I just love your hair today, "Are you trying something new?" or "I wish I could do that with my hair." If anything, my experience with wearing my natural hair taught me to learn how to live boldly."
Her advice: "Hair that grows out of your head, whether it looks like others or not, can never be unprofessional. Bring your full self to the office and be confident in that. Wear your wigs, braids, or natural hair, sis. That doesn't interfere with what you bring to the company."
Khadija, Financial Analyst
Her experience: "I've generally had a positive experience wearing my natural hair in a very traditional, corporate space. I've been fortunate enough to not feel any levels of discomfort nor feel any amount of discrimination toward myself because of my choice to wear my natural curls. With that being said, I have felt a few moments of frustration. Constantly having to answer questions about my hair or explain that I didn't cut it, I just pushed it up into a puff, can get very annoying. While I know that people have good intentions when asking questions because my hair is so different than anything they’ve ever seen, explaining your blackness over and over becomes exhausting over time."
Her advice: "If a company cannot appreciate you and your natural self, they don't deserve all of the brilliance that is you!"
Natacha, Assistant Manager of Global Education
Her experience: "Because I work in corporate in the fashion and beauty industry, it’s a bit easier for me to be myself when it comes to me wearing my natural hair. I also wear a lot of protective styles like braids and faux locks. But there are many times when I come into work with those styles and people are amazed and astonished at the many ways I can constantly change my hair and begin to ask a million questions. Some of those questions are a bit offensive. People even have tried touching my hair Cues Solange 'Don't Touch My Hair.'"
Her advice: "These experiences have taught me to rock my hair unapologetically. As a woman of color, my hair is one of many ways I express myself, and changing that expression by rocking my natural hair in different styles is up to me."
Jasmine, Social Media Writer
Her experience: "When I first started my job, I was the only black girl on staff. I used to shy away from wearing my natural hair out in fear of standing out even more so. I'd mostly wear it up in a bun. I realized that my issue stemmed from me not being comfortable enough with myself and my hair, so I wanted to hide it. Once I gained that confidence the game changed: I started rocking braid-outs, high puffs, and even waist-length box braids. I'm thankful to work in a place that is accepting of me and my curls."
Her advice: "My advice for women who are afraid to wear their natural is just go for it! You have to get to a place where you are so comfortable with yourself and your hair that no one's opinion can knock you."
Dior, Senior Account Manager
Her experience: "I've often had people reach out and touch my hair without asking—this probably happens weekly. I also think wearing my hair the way I do makes me look even younger than I already do, which has definitely led to people not providing me with the same level respect that my peers have received, and my voice not carrying the same weight as others in the same position."
Her advice: "I think at the end of the day the quality of your work will speak for you above all else. If you're producing top-quality work, that won't go unnoticed—it's what has led to me getting promoted twice in less than a year, with natural hair and all. Also, our hair is what makes us unique and stand out! No one has ever been noticed while trying to blend in and look like everyone else."
Narica, Medical Student
Her experience: "One of the great perks of attending a historically black medical school is being able to feel completely free in your skin. Here, my natural hair is celebrated and even praised. This, however, is not the case in my other work environments. Once I step out of these comforting walls, the problems arise. With only 2% percent of doctors in the United States being black women, I found myself in environments where no one looked liked me, and it showed from my interactions. Once while partaking in a program, I decided to wear my curly 4C Afro and I could feel everyone staring as soon as I walked in. One colleague even stated that my hair was 'interesting' and he preferred my other hairstyle. I've also worn faux locs and was bombarded with ignorant questions regarding my ties to Bob Marley and my smoking habits. Even though I am Jamaican, the stereotyping was uncomfortable, to say the least, and these encounters rattled the confidence I once had in my appearance."
Her advice: "My experiences have revealed insecurities that I didn't know I had. It has also allowed me to face these insecurities head on. I have found myself wearing more natural styles while encouraging and complimenting women who do the same. I feel a small word of encouragement goes a long way, and by just telling a woman that her twist-out is 'on point' may give her the much-needed confidence boost to rock her natural hair. Never feel like you have to conform to your surroundings. Currently, we are seeing an increase in women straying away from relaxers and embracing the natural hair movement. And you can do the same, whether that be rocking your kinky curls or even box braids."
Mabel, Digital Merchandising Manager
Her experience: "In the past, I wore my hair in a bun or got blowouts at Drybar to avoid dealing with my curly hair. More recently, since I joined Equinox, it has forced me to take more proactive measures to take care of my hair and be more mindful of what products I use. Eight months ago, I wore my hair curly to the office for the first time and was surprised by everyone's compliments, enthusiasm, and interest for my new look. In a way, hair sparked dialogues among my colleagues about what do I to maintain it and what multicultural hair care products I use to achieve my look."
Her advice: "My advice for women of color is to show up at work authentically as you are. Leverage elements of your unique style and personality, whether it be your fashion, hair, heritage, hobbies, as points of education and to express yourself."
Angel, Marketing Assistant
Her experience: "My co-workers and peers seem very keen on having opinions and gave no second thought on voicing them. After much thought and prayer, I decided to make a transition, which was to stop wearing my wig and instead wear my shrunken 4C hair. As you can imagine, it was quite a change. But I made this choice because as a young woman, I wanted to feel confident and as if my beauty was not determined by my usage of weaves and wigs. The first week of the transition was awful. Instead of hearing the normal 'Hey! How was your weekend?' I was greeted with looks of shock accompanied by 'You cut your hair!' and 'I liked it better when it was big!'
"For the two weeks leading up to the debut of my natural hair, I had tremendous anxiety. I couldn't eat regularly, my stomach was doing flips at the thought of not wearing a wig. I was in a completely vulnerable mindset where I was expecting my co-workers and peers to have negative reactions. They lived up to my expectations. However, this whole transition experience was like ripping off a bandage. Once the initial sting was over, I got used to the way I look with shrunken hair and now one year later I love my 4C look. Furthermore, my peers and former co-workers are now used to my hair, and although I still get the occasional "Remember when your hair was really big? I want you to get that style again' comment, I don't care enough to stop rocking my easy, free, and cute, wash and go."
Her advice: "There is also a spiritual stronghold in the black community to think that our God-given coils and curls are not acceptable, nonetheless beautiful. So pray about it! Ask God, or the universe, or whatever you believe in, to be with you throughout your day and to remind you that you are doing a good thing.
"Get a support system. Whether it's a group text with your girlfriends, your supportive boo, or your sisters, text a picture of your new look to a crew that will hype you up. Nothing feels more empowering than compliments and affirmations from people who really mean it and who know what you are truly going through."
Oyinade, Assistant Media Manager
Her experience: "Before my current position, I worked for the federal government in Washington, D.C. My hair was always changing, from braids to weaves to my natural twist-outs. Oftentimes former colleagues would ask how did your hair grow so fast or how do they attach the hair to your head, and I could tell that my eclectic style was seen as unprofessional."
Her advice: "A friend once told me being your true and authentic self is an act of resistance. My advice to women of color is to show up and show out every day. Be the example your younger self needed!"
Next: Is natural hair a fetish to the public eye? Read one real woman's experience inside.