The Afro in the Workplace

When will natural hair be accepted in the workplace?

Workplace dress codes are nothing new, and are something that many of us have to battle against on a regular basis. However, while some take issue with rules such as what shoes to wear or how much makeup to put on, others are dealing with much more personal issues – how to wear their hair.

Afro or kinky hair is a symbol of Black identity and should be celebrated in all its forms. However, as many Black people find, particularly Black women, natural hair really isn’t widely accepted in corporate, white-collar workplaces. Why is that, and when will it change?

 Hair rules

 The idea that African Americans are discriminated against is obviously nothing new. As we’ve discussed before, this history of discrimination goes back as far as we care to look, and it all stems from the Eurocentric idea that Black people are inferior to white people, yet are still held to their standards of beauty.

 Natural hair has long been one of the biggest areas for discrimination because it’s just so vastly different from European hair: the color, texture, care routine, and possible styles. Racism, in the most basic form, is formed from uneducated ideas of superiority based on markers of difference, and hair texture is one of the most obvious.

 For example, in the 15th and 16th centuries, before the slave trade really took off, hairstyles were a massive part of African culture. Women would spend hours using special treatments to achieve some truly amazing hairstyles, which were specific to their local cultures, social roles, and their status.

 So then when European ships started transporting slaves to America, the slave owners latched on to hair as a possible site of oppression. By recognizing the cultural importance of hair and working against it, the slave owners made a conscious decision to wipe out one of the most important forms of cultural expression.

 In fact, in some southern states, it was the law for slave women to wear their hair in wraps. This was to specifically mark them out against the white women who owned them, who, although they had their own cultural rules about hair, were at the very least allowed to wear it uncovered.

Over a century after the abolition of slavery in the US, there are still hangovers from these rules. The 2-3 centuries in which slavery existed has left a big mark on American society, and many of the cultural beliefs about what is acceptable have made their way into modern culture, in one form or another.

 Natural hair in the workplace

 Rules surrounding Black hair are no exception. While we might not still have the same laws about Black women covering their hair, these rules helped to set European hair as the desirable standard. This means that Black women spend lots of time and money having their hair straightened so they can achieve “white” hairstyles that are seen as more desirable. The corporate workplace, unfortunately, is particularly bad for this.

 Many companies hide rules about hairstyles in their dress codes, working under the assumption that they can tell their employees what to wear. While this is true, to an extent, rules surrounding hair texture are blatantly discrimination because they only target Black people.

 There are almost endless stories about women being sent home from work, or failing a job interview, because of their hair. One woman lost her job as a waitress because she wasn’t able to wear her hair down like her white colleagues. What made it even worse, though, is that her white colleagues couldn’t understand that she can’t wear her hair down without relaxing or flattening it.

 If that’s not bad enough, there are also examples of children being sent home from school for their hairstyles. One boy was sent home because dreadlocks were banned by his school, as they were considered distracting. Similarly, many high school girls are sent home for wearing their hair naturally, something that would never happen to Caucasian girls.

 Different companies claim different reasons for their discrimination. Some say natural/afro hair is distracting, or that dreadlocks are unprofessional. Others even claim that hair is disruptive. The bottom line is that these companies are essentially preventing their Black employees from appropriately expressing their Black identities.

 In order to conform to Eurocentric hair standards, African Americans have to spend countless hours and lots of money in hair salons to have their hair relaxed or straightened.

 If nothing else, this puts them at a financial disadvantage compared to their white colleagues who don’t need hair treatments. Add this onto the wage gap between Black people and white people, and between men and women, and it really starts adding up.

 How are things changing?

 Although discrimination against hair texture is nothing new, more and more states are starting to understand the position this puts Black employees in. This has led to the beginnings of legislation to stop such practices by companies.

For example, California became the first state to ban the practice in 2019 with the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act. This makes it a crime to discriminate against someone based on their hair texture, and applies to both workplaces and schools. The bill passed unanimously through both houses, and began a discussion about raising a similar law at federal level too.

Several states have since followed suit, with Colorado and New Jersey both signing their own versions of the act, and New York, Virginia, and Washington making amendments to their existing discrimination acts. In total, 6 states have legislation currently banning this form of discrimination.

 While this is a step in the right direction, it shows just how much further we have to go before we reach equality. Black women should be able to express themselves through hair, just as anyone else should be able to. Hairstyles have never had any relation to a person’s work ethic, and it’s time more companies understood this.

by Christine Okoro

I am a part time writer who enjoys expressing my thoughts and voice through written text. I want to be able to enlighten, inspire, and create with others through topics that interest me and spark conversation.

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