IS NATURAL HAIR PREJUDICE SHRINKING IN THE WORKPLACE?
Afro hair in the workplace
Historically afro/curly/textured hair hasn’t, had an easy ride. In attempts to align with a European beauty ideal, women (and men) have forced their hair to conform. However, in 2016, in arguably the most significant era of the natural-hair movement since its prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, women have embraced their freedom and started revelling in their natural hair beauty. But will unspoken ‘rules’ of the workplace undercut this natural hair revival? In the world of celebrity, natural hair is increasingly in the spotlight – thanks largely to individuals such as Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, British singer Jameila and Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo.
Their decision to wear their hair natural hasn’t hindered their careers, but for the not-so famous, the psychological battle of deciding whether to wear natural hair to work continues.
“One weekend I took out my weave and went to work on Monday with my natural hair,” says Annie from Manchester, who works in finance. “I was so apprehensive when I first went in. Being the only black woman in the department, everyone was staring and talking about it … There were some negative but also some positive comments. Colleagues were quite shocked, [some] even touched my hair!”
Annie is not the only one to experience the ‘hands-on’ approach. “When I started wearing my natural hair to work, there was lots of fascination – colleagues asked to touch it”, says Belinda from London, who works in market research. “I do get positive comments, but I don’t see why I should give full-blown explanations about my hair at work – it’s hair, it’s just a different texture to yours. Views about natural hair are so entrenched, we don’t even realise. If I worked somewhere and they told me to cover my natural hair, I wouldn’t work there anymore.”
Increasingly, anecdotes of black women experiencing problems after wearing their natural hair at work have been surfacing in the media. Earlier this year, ‘Leila’ from London reported that she was told by her employer to wear a weave to work. “I am West African and I work at a consultancy firm in London,” she told the BBC. “I am always being made to feel that my natural hair gives the impression that I am unprofessional”. Leila subsequently changed her hairstyle, fearing her natural hair would become an obstacle to career progression.
Another Londoner, Simone Powderly, claimed she was told by a recruitment agency to remove her braids before being put forward for interviews with luxury designer brands. She declined. Meanwhile Canadian waitress Akua Agyemfra was reprimanded at work after her manager allegedly told her to wear her hair down, to which she replied, my hair doesn’t really “go down”.
Unfortunately, many people of all races have inherited the fallacy that afro hair is ‘unprofessional’.
“I think it’s an issue that women of colour can’t feel confident and feel they have to navigate the workspace, hiding their natural hair”, says Oyin Akiniyi (pictured), founder of The Good Hair Club online beauty store.
“The idea that only straight hair is professional is ludicrous”. Nevertheless, it remains a common concern – even for Neecie Gold, co-founder of The Natural Hair Daily, which ran an afro-hair meetup and workshop at Africa Utopia, sharing natural-hair style tips and celebrating the versatility of natural hair. “I was a bit nervous about going natural to work,” says Gold. “At the time I was working for a car dealership, but I just confidently rocked it. “As I’m natural now and trying to branch away from the industry I’m in, I’ve found it quite difficult to secure interviews, which does make me question whether my LinkedIn profile picture is a reason for this. It’s a shame there is some ignorance among some employers regarding natural hair. Employers should judge people based on whether they can do the actual job.”
To wash away lingering, archaic prejudices, natural hair needs to be more visible in the workplace. Unless natural hair becomes a ubiquitous feature in our culture it may always face resistance. If people with naturally straight hair are not forced to wear their hair in an un-natural state, the same latitude should be extended to those with afro/curly textured hair.”
This post was also featured in Dual Magazine in association with Africa Utopia festival 2016.
Snippets of an African legacy