"We are an equal opportunity employer" is usually the opening or closing of an
employment application. But is it rightfully implemented? African American women are currently in a war with corporate America and its grooming criteria. Even the tightest of coils and neatest of locs have been considered unprofessional, unruly, and unacceptable. There have been numerous legal cases that further African American victimization. In a corporate world with an "equal opportunity" platform, is it right to force conformity to white desirable traits in order to be considered a competitor?
"Psychological tests show that people most trust people who look like them" says "Ask the white guy" from DiversityInc. Companies ran by Causcasian men, like most companies are, prefer an employer with Caucasian features so African American women must relate in skin tone and/or straight hair. So do white features guarantee me a position of power? In "Pursuing Upward Mobility: African American Women Reflect on their Journey," Robinson and Nelson show that the answer to this question is a strong yes. In order to how show how race, gender, and class have commonly effected the lives of African American women as they pursue success, otherwise known as "upward mobility," Robinson and Nelson selected six women between the ages 30 to 60 to discuss their experiences. Women of color add chemicals to their hair in order to obtain white features while interracial discrimination between women of color with light complexion to dark also persists. These features that are considered a requirement to be considered desirable and "powerful" supports the claim that white is superior, and the more "white-washed" a woman of color is, the more powerful she will
White women are regarded as the ideal beauty, while African American Women are forced to compromise in order to operate "outside of the role" that is given to them which, in this context, means being considered undesirable: "in a world that assigns status and power based on skin color, hair type, and facial features, white women possess these desirable traits, resulting in priveleges and power not extended to African
American Women" (Russel, Wilson, & Hall, 1992). Not only does this claim equate
power to beauty, but it also specifies exactly what that beauty must consist of:
white features. This notion of desirability is essential to my research, because an appearance of professionalism is what all employers seek and is where power is exerted.
From Historical Perspectives to Current Issues
The history of African American hair gives a better understanding of where these unequal platforms may have originated. In "Hey Girl, Am I More than My hair? African American Women and their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair," Patterson discusses the platform where the importance of hair first began. During the centuries of slavery, hair was symbolic to class. If a woman of color had hair closest to caucasian features, such as soft and straight, they were assigned to work as maids. If their hair was coarse and tightly coiled, than they would more often than not, work in the field: "adopting many white European traits was essential to survival, e.g., free vs. slave, employed vs. uneployed, educated vs. uneducated."
This platform of associating education with hair type is the reason why the hair debate is still prevalent today. Associating such characteristics with hair styles creates stereotypes that ultimately define who the person is. Stereotypes like those who wear locs must sell weed, or styling your hair as an afro puff is for "political reasons," as
Melissa Harris Perry introduces in her crash course of natural hair, is what bars African American women on their journey to upward mobility.
Clearly, white features are the most desirable traits, but is it right to conform? In "Fighting for our Hair in Corporate America,"Doussou goes right into it asking: "Do we step up to an employer when we feel discriminated against and risk our jobs? Or do we fall in line and conform." Much of the research either sways towards the point of being forced to conform in order to survive or emphasizes the point of how we've conformed. African American women themselves, however, must also be heard.
"Natural hair discrimination in the professional world in 2013 is just foolish and unprofessional in itself" says Chioma Bennet, a school teacher in Brooklyn. Bennet's quote is critical, because understanding it in its entirety will emphasize that African American women can not continue to simply comply.
Cornrow and Dredlocs: Targets for Discrimination
The issue of cornrows and dreadlocks at Hampton University School of Business affects even historically black colleges. This ban was initiated by Hampton University's Dean who stood firmly in believing that by doing so, it would provide job opportunities for students. Even if this were the case, we can pose another question "should we really be working to conform to corporate norms, or should be working towards changing them?"
This same banning of cornrows within a Historically Black College is prevalent within the working world as well as the video below will show:
In the video above, the woman has been given an ultimatum to either cut her locs or lose her job. She explains the importance of her hair, as it is a part of her culture. If I understood correctly, this woman had been hired for this loan company before the grooming code of conduct to not have locs was implemented. Due to the fact that she is the only one with locs in that company, it is safe to say that this code was implemented and singularly put in place because of her. I found this video of locs being discriminated against in the workplace relevant, because dredlocs have been targeted for natural hair discrimination by many places: Fed-ex, Six Flags, and the Airforce. In "Avoiding Claims of Discrimination Based on Personal Appearance: Grooming and Hygiene," Marc calls out these companies who have already banned locs within the working world.
Employees can be prohibited from wear cornrows in the workplace. Because cornrows are regarded as "easily changeable," banning cornrows does not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts. Cornrow styles, thus, cannot be protected. Like cornrows, dredlocs are another form of natural hair care that the African American Community takes great pride in. This culture has been going on for years and will only increase as African American Communities grow more in touch with their roots. Dredlocs are a comittment, which Ashley Davis, as seen in the video above, has devoted 10 years of her life to growing. For the company to not value or care to value the culture of her hair that means so much to her, even after providing the credentials to effectively do the job, is not acceptable. What I am having a problem understanding is: if the company guidelines fall so heavily on hair, then this guideline should have been implemented before she was hired. If she did not initially fall under the category of professionalism they were looking for, it would have been professional to notify her before the job was offered.
This research, however, does not focus on why African American women did not choose a "professional" hairstyle, but why in fact, do African American Women have to experience such havoc wreaked on their locs to begin with. Why is it considered unprofessional? Why is this discrimination supported?
Professionalism, Conformity, and Race
One popular youtube vlogger, Sunshine, makes a great point on professionalism, however there are a few areas of her argument below that deserve critique:
The video above contributes a point of view that should be considered. She is completely correct; just like with any other person, it is irresponsible and unprofessional to roll out of bed and expect others to be receptive of that choice. However, with professionalism comes the responsibility in knowing when the presentation of oneself is neat and kempt and when it is not. Sunshine makes the point of hairstyles playing a factor in what is considered professional, but although she uses a lawyer just as an example, I would like to think that any lawyer would already know when he/she does not look presentable and would alter her look accordingly. Any person of powerful standing would not deliberately neglect their presentation because of the extreme likelihood of that tainting his/her credibility.
As a primary example, "afro puffs" can still be considered professional if presented in a neat manner, like the pictures to the right for example. The woman even
has a "flower in her hair" and looks stunning. Even a mohawk, as Sunshine so blantantly criticizes, can be presentable, just like the picture to the left. These are not exceptions; they are examples that fit the criteria of a "mowhawk" and an "afro puff." African American women have done a phenomenal job with exceptional detail to make their hair "acceptable." Sunshine's video makes an excellent point; however, I was troubled with the limits she puts of what is considered professional and what wasn't. It brings me back to the "do's and dont's" from a now very unpopular Glamour magazine staffer who stated that deadlocks are "dreadful".
An African American woman sporting an Afro. A real no-no,... As for dreadlocks: How truly dreadful! The style maven said it was 'shocking' that some people still think it appropriate' to wear those hairstyles at the office. 'No offense,' she sniffed, but those 'political' hairstyles really have to go"
This statement is troubling in more ways than one and rightfully so, this staffer has undergone a vast amount of publicity and ridicule. My point is this: professionalism, in a sense, is relative, relative to what an employer is looking for, relative to what an African American Woman can provide. If an employer views professionalism solely as straight hair and lighter skin tone, then this spectrum denies black women's humanity. The depths of what get cast as professionalism must come with an
understanding that African American women have already done all they can to be professional with the neatly coiled locs, dreads, mohawks and afropuffs.
The pressure is on to conform, but sometimes African American women do not have the assurance that tightly coiled locs and dreads are enough, and some just can't chance it. Glamour Magazine, in an effort to redeeem themselves after the previous staffer offended many, created a roundtable segment discussing African American Women and their natural Hair. This roundtable, "Your Race, Your Looks," hosted by Farai Chidaya sparked a very interesting discussion. In a discussion between Vanessa Bush, executive director of Essence, and a woman named Floyd, Floyd commented that she feels the pressure of having to conform to keep her job. Vanessa Bush asks her: "At what point do you say 'Why should I?'" Floyd's response echoed many African
American women: "I’ve got two kids who are in school, and you get to a point where you have practical decisions to make. I have a message I want to get out there, so I’m going to make this particular compromise and be very careful not to lose a sense of who I am." This closely relates back to the question in Ebony question: "Do we step up to an employer when we feel discriminated against and risk our jobs? Or do we fall in line and conform."
Some say conformity is becoming a thing of the past, but there are other issues still prevalent. In "Natural Hair and Professionalism: An Oxymoron?" in Black Enterprise, the author introduces another key point of discussion within the social economics of natural hair. The author defends the Glamour Magazine staffer by stating that she has been "reprimanded" for her statement, going on to discuss that black women have also said these words about other black women, but they have, in turn, just accepted it. Essentially, this woman is introducing the "black on black" crime within our own culture. I completely agree with her perspective. I have undergone my own period of accepting my natural hair when my peers would constantly question me and tell me to get a weave or go back to perming my hair because my "roots are crazy." It is important to emphasize how this downgrading within our own culture gives greater permission for other cultures to do the same. She also argues: "if you haven't noticed recently, black women with kinky hair dominate the same commercials that are cast by all white ad agencies." Even though I might not completely believe her statement is true, her statement ties in with the roundtable discussion of "Women in Television":
In this roundtable discussion above, one participant argues that ".. Now it's kind of like the thing, you can watch commercials now with a black woman, you can notice that their all natural, it's like now, if im going to look for a black woman, I want a black woman." This is exciting, because it is introducing some change in preferences. Furthermore, I was drawn to this mini-documentary because it is a roundtable of what looks like my peers (there is a lot within this mini-documentary for the foundation of my later research). This documentary starts off by asking young adults "what is the ideal anchor?" This question was prompted after numerous discussions of news anchors and their preferred hair style. They introduce Melissa Harris-Perry and her braids and another African American news anchor who decided to keep her hair short and natural. Some of the responses from young teenagers were that an ideal anchor has these traits: "natural hair," must "look professional," "very good looking" and "Blonde hair and blue eyes."
Another important aspect of this documentary is when the roundtable introduces the idea that "the first step is people becoming more knowledgeable in what black hair entails." I'd like to emphasize this because in order for this complex of stereotypes such as afros starting a revolution, dreads being dreadful (refering back to the Glamour Magazine Staffer), and chemically straightened hair being "white washed", we must all understand that this is all just, in fact, a series of stereotypes. Melissa Harris-Perry ends her segment with "...when in doubt, of course, the best course of action is to understand a black woman by what's in her head, not what's on it."
Natural Hair: Healthy and Political
Professor Yanela Gordon from Florida A & M University brings up the point that "...we have been the antithesis of beauty and that was created in order to create an inferiority complex that was required to enable slavery to work." Thus, going natural has been such a revelation, because going against this "created inferiority complex" and embracing the very thing that was used against us creates an assumption, historically supported, that there is a rebellion soon to come.
The process of going natural has also been provoked by the sole purpose of having healthier hair. Weaves tend to pull on the scalp making it scarce; chemicals feels like "its burning through your cerebral cortex" as Oprah puts it, and, thus, conformity just isn't worth the sacrifice.
With all the discrimination that African American women have to deal with, it isn't hard for a person to understand how frustrating it can get. Take a look at one example below where discrimination in the workplace took a toll on this young woman:
This employee expresses her emotions about her new manager who forced her to continuously alter her appearance. She complies to an extent by wearing make-up and high heels, but throughout the course of this managerial change, she has been approached by an assistant manager who inferred that she should change her natural hair style. He approached her by first stating that in "a man's point of view," she looks "butch" with her cornrows. For those who are not familiar with the term, "butch" is associated with masculine traits, usually used against women to infer that she looks like a lesbian. I am immensely troubled with the approach this man made for the following reasons:
- The idea that she is expected to change her appearance because it does not appeal to men is troubling in and of itself.
- He deliberately chose to include "in a man's point of view" instead of directly stating his point of view, that he believes she looks butch. By associating his belief with all men, his intentions were to criticize her hairstyle on a larger scale; since he implies that he cannot be the only one that could feel this way, he asserts male dominance.
- He states "it's not bad, but it makes you look butch." Bad, in this context is relative to "butch." If the hairstyle was in actuality not considered bad, he would have no business speaking with her on the matter.
I can go on to analyze the offensive approach of this assistant manager, but I'd just like to focus on the point I made to incorporate this video, which is to introduce an example that many African American women face with their natural hair in the workplace.
One website that I came across that incorporates other examples of discrimination and a forum for African American women to express their feelings is Madame Noir. Madame Noire is a very popular website that incorporates discussions, issues, and events within the African American community. I use this website for relevancy as
Madame Noire is very up-to-date with current issues pertaining to African American issues on everything: entertainment, business, hair, health, health and politics to name a few. Under the tab of natural hair, Madame Noire focuses greatly on trending fabs of celebrities, however, if you type "natural hair within corporate america" in the search bar, there will be lists of articles of up to 5 pages. I plan on dissecting and incorporating "Does Natural Hair have A place in Corporate America" within my research to come.
It is safe to say that I have done extensive research on the background of African American Hair, its impact on African American woman as well as in society. I am extremely ecstatic to continue my research and uncover new information that examines the prevalence of the issue of discrimination in the workplace.