Get your corporate ladder off my afro!

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I just have to blog about this ridiculous incident that has already been commented upon plenty. Read the original American Lawyer article for details, but the outlines of the scandal are straightforward: a blogger for Glamour magazine went to a prestigious law firm to give a presentation, with slides, on the “dos and don’ts of corporate fashion.” Now, this sort of exercise in self-congratulatory conformity would normally make me run straight to my leopard-print Keds and kente cloth do-rag, but in this case, unfortunately, duty calls.

So, this savvy, fashion-conscious blogger put her first slide on the screen. It was of a black woman. With black hair. Okay, you might call her hairstyle an “afro.” Why? Here’s a hint: it has something to do with being of African descent, and having a certain type of hair. And it just so happens that this type of hair looks really good, I mean seriously fucking beautiful, if you let it grow out without any kind of “naturalizer” or “relaxer” or “perm”. Don’t believe me?

Angela Davis Afro

Yeah. It almost gives me the chills.

But back to our know-it-all Glamour blogger. What does she say after putting up a photo undoubtedly similar to this one of Angela Davis? Does she say that this beautiful, empowered look will command respect in the boardroom? Does she give some tips on how to find a good afro pick in Lord & Taylor?

Hell no! This is corporate fashion, remember? Black people (especially black women) are only tolerated to the degree that they take pains to avoid any overt reminder of their blackness. Thus:

First slide up: an African-American woman sporting an Afro. A real no-no, announced the Glamour editor to the 40 or so lawyers in the room. 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.

Oh, sorry, I had to practice some deep breathing. Let’s not kid ourselves here, “corporate culture” is founded upon the principle of erasing as much individuality as possible. Whatever other pearls of wisdom she dropped in this presentation were probably as degrading (though not as offensive) as her comments about “political” hair styles. Incidentally, Angela Davis might be this woman’s #1 Corporate Fashion Offender, considering that the professor is currently sporting the other anathema ‘do:

Angela Davis Dreadlocks

I dread to imagine her opinions of corn rows, twists or braids. (I wore my hair in braids from 4th grade to around 9th. I can’t tell you the number of times girls in my grade asked if my hair grew braided. It’s really remarkable how stupid people can become the second they encounter something they consider exotic. As if they hadn’t ever braided their own fucking hair before.)

Let me lay out a few basic facts for those of you unfamiliar with Black Hair 101:

1) Without any chemicals in it (and I’ve gotta say, black women with their hair in a Natural State are becoming about as rare as the Ivory-Billed woodpecker), black hair is extremely thick (it can be twice as big in diameter as a strand of non-black hair) and curly. Another word for this quality is “kinky.” This is the provenance of that legendary afro pick that some black men like to stick in their hair. It’s the only kind of comb that can get through the stuff.

2) Corollary to point #1: this hair is damn hard to comb. Every black woman I know has memories of having their hair tugged and beaten into submission as a child, usually with braids and hair balls. This is a pain in the ass, and most mothers, understandably, can’t handle it for very long and so take their children to have their hair relaxed at the earliest opportunity. Since black men can just keep cutting their hair very short, it’s actually much easier for them to wear it natural.

3) So, most black women just use a harsh “bone-straight” no-lye relaxer every three months. This means that they can comb their hair, but it’s not a simple “solution.” For one, these relaxers weaken hair and make it impossible to grow it very long before it starts to break off. Your hair becomes very brittle and dry, but that’s the price you pay for having hair that is the most acceptable to certain sectors of white society (i.e. corporate America). This style can look great, of course, but it’s not easy on the hair.

4) If you don’t want to do this to your hair, there are a few other options. Braids mean that you don’t have to deal with combing your hair for about three months. On the other hand, it took my mother hours to comb it after the braids came out when I was a kid. Other options?

5) Dredlocks. Your hair likes to tangle? Then let the damn stuff tangle, and make it a hairstyle. I haven’t had the guts to do this myself (if you want to get rid of it, you have to cut all your hair off), but I love the way it looks and the natural ease of it.

6) Afro. This hairstyle actually takes a lot of time to keep up, but as I said above, it is gorgeous. And your hair can actually stay healthy.

Thanks to the issues detailed above, black women in America are practically BORN with a complex about their hair. The Angry Black Woman wrote a great post about this. It’s hard enough to deal with such naturally beautiful, but naturally difficult, hair. Do we really need to add white people’s cultural baggage to the equation? There are so many layers of ignorance embedded in the statement that all styles but option #3 are “political”, I don’t know where to begin. A corporate drone telling me that I have to relax my hair in order to meet the dress code is as insane as an unspoken rule requiring all white people to wear a tight perm. An afro is no more “political” than dark pigmentation itself. This Glamour blogger would probably be indignant if someone went around proclaiming that black people should bleach their skin to make their white co-workers feel more comfortable. And yet she thinks it’s totally fine to declare natural black hair anathema.

I’ve read a few people defending this blogger with variants of, “yes, it was stupid/ignorant, but she’s not actually racist. She just made a mistake.” Anyone who can defend someone with “she’s not actually racist” is completely missing the point. No one offended by this woman’s comments ever imagined that she went to Klan rallies on weekends and kept a copy of The Bell Curve by her bed. “Racist” is an adjective that can be usefully applied to only a few people these days (Don Imus and Bill O’Reilly, for example). Mostly, ideas are racist. And the idea that black women have to bone-straight relax their hair to rise in business is racist. Inspiring and necessary as the Civil Rights movement was, I think, in some ways, that the shots of Bull Connor siccing dogs on nonviolent students did us the disservice of having an extreme image at which one can point and say “that’s racist.” Undoubtedly, Bull Connor was an old-school racist, but you don’t have to hose down protesters in order to merit that distinction.

The sad thing is, this woman is taking the fall for the crime of enunciating the unspoken rules that everyone already knows. Natural black hair is largely unacceptable in the corporate workplace. When I was interviewing for jobs right out of college, I was forced to contemplate whether I should keep my hair in a bun or let it be its big, curly self (full disclosure: I use a mild relaxer on my hair). I kept it in a bun.

Tell me, Angela, just how fucking sad is that?

___________________________________________

I should, of course, mention that Glamour has responded in a creditable way to this shitstorm, including many apologies (though oddly delayed, as far as I can tell) and suspending the editor/blogger, who has since resigned. In some ways, though, I wish that the powers-that-be could discuss this issue more openly, instead of just pretending that the prejudice doesn’t exist outside of a few “bad apples.” Reminds me of a few Presidential administrations, really…

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17 thoughts on “Get your corporate ladder off my afro!

  1. Lauren M says:

    I’m only now just discovering your blog so, of course, I feel compelled to comment on every post. That biatch from Glamour has it absolutely right. If you want to succeed in business the best thing you can be is a white guy. A white lady is probably second best, followed by a non-white (but not fully black) male or female, followed by a black male and then finally, if you absolutely have to, a black female. But if you INSIST on actually being both black and female, for the love of god, don’t go parading it around.

    That woman should have socks filled with manure thrown at her head repeatedly. I don’t care how “practical” or “realistic” she thinks she’s being (and these are exactly the adjectives people use when endorsing racism/sexism for what they believe are benign purposes), she’s an ass and should be publically ridiculed. Did it ever occur to her that there’s something WRONG with a business culture that enforces whiteness?

  2. Jetse says:

    Hi Alaya (and Hi Lauren),

    This is indeed both racist and sad, but big business is, unfortunately, very conservative.

    Thing is, this reminded me of an article I read a few weeks ago that said:

    “A four-year study by New-York based consultancy, Catalyst, found that corporations with the highest proportion of women on their boards delivered equity returns that were 53 percent higher than those with the lowest representation of women.”

    Link here: http://www.management-issues.com/2007%2F10%2F1%2Fresearch%2Fmore-women-on-the-board-leads-to-better-results.asp

    So sexism in the boardroom is simply bad for profits. Even the *financial* argument is against sexism, and still most corporations keep the prejudice.

    While I haven’t read about any research that shows a similar link between race and the performance of big companies, I strongly suspect that racial diversity in the boardroom will also have a positive effect.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I can’t tell you the number of times girls in my grade asked if my hair grew braided.

    I had a teacher ask me that once. In front of the whole class. And of course, she had to put her grubby paws all up and through my recently braided, tender-to-the-touch scalp.

  4. jennifer says:

    I live in a low income and very diverse city which is predominantly latino, this being so I thought people would be smart enough to be open minded.I was wrong.
    Most of my life I have been getting comments about my hair.You see I am the only one in my family with “kinky hair” and sometimes I would get teased, and some people being stupid would say that I must have been adopted because I am the only “nigga” in the family, I HATE hearing that word and also being made fun of in that manner.
    Recently in class (in which everybody knows that I am a Latina) they got in to a giant discussion about my hair and I got embarrassed because some people would say out loud “yo Jennifer, she is right you do have nigga hair” and other people would either say something degrading about black people or something about my hair and saying that my hair is just extremely curly. It got to the point where two or three kids got off their seats and started examining my hair…I hated every second of it and then it got worse when it became a giant racial smack down….What a nice way to remember your sophomore year in high school.

    I just felt like venting….thanx

  5. Alaya says:

    Hey Jennifer,

    That sucks, but I do know the feeling. Unfortunately people (and especially teenagers) can be pretty insensitive when it comes to racially charged issues like hair.

    On the other hand, as my mom would always tell me (and I’d roll my eyes), they’re probably jealous. Big curly hair is beautiful. Maybe next time you should tell them that if they want to touch it, you’re gonna charge admission 🙂

    Good luck.

  6. Masana says:

    Hey there

    Well i’m from South Africa, so i don’t know much about corporate America except for my month spent in the States over June… seems like a very uptight place whee everyone wears black, grey adn white and my colourful outfits were dismissed as improffessional…. but besides, i met some lovely folks there…

    my hair is in an afro, i just got it trimmed today but it took ages to grow it this way. however, it is also very soft but not ‘bone-straight’. i still get the same looks and enquiries bout my hair. in 2005 when some American girls came over for a month, they thought it a wonder that my hair ‘could stand up on its ends like that’. i remember chuckling but the same phenomenon of non-blackness is present in Africa. yes relaxed hair is conveniant evry morning but i don’t think that hair (or even colour for that matter) affects the brain it covers.

    slowly but surely there are many SA women wearing their hair naturally and though some say ‘they are not their hair’, your hair is important to how you perceive yourself

    i kept on braidin my hair at a stage bcoz i was not happy with the way my hair looked and i would wear them down to hide my face

    the nice thing about my afro is that i can see that it is my face that makes me beautiful, despite my fro

    so i’m 20 now and in university and i plan to shave my hair when i turn 21 coz my hair is pretty monumental in how i present myself – a la naturelle

    shame for that poor lady, if only she knew that there’s a whole world of young, smart, beautiful black women across the globe working their butts of to be valued regardless of their hair

  7. milkyminx says:

    Interesting discussion!

    I think we have an opportunity to empower the younger generation by teaching them their history and the roots of their natural hair and skin colour (it all its varieties) and how it impacts our lives today. With understanding throughout our society we can hopefully begin to accept each other as souls and more than our images.

    Unfortunately, it is true that there is an unwritten rule that white features and characteristics define beauty, while African features are primitive and threatening.

    Education and open discussion of our differences are our best weapons against this. But first comes the deep thought and self acceptance most people don’t address. There are a lot of whys that need answering but it begins with an individual journey.

    Have you read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? You say you’re an avid reader and that book deals with this topic.

  8. […] I have no immediate plans to discuss black hair soon (WHY do I get fifty hits a day just for this post?) but hey, I could be persuaded to write some more about […]

  9. Natalie says:

    I have never felt so good about myself, until I went natural. It is a contagious and enlightening beauty. It makes me laugh when I think of the comments I would get from permed black women when they saw my afro: “That looks so good on you, but I don’t know if it would look right on me…”

    Did you catch that? We have defined ourself so long through blue eyes…that we don’t know if our natural hair would look right on us? Who else would it look good on…it was made for us! But seeing other Black women with natural hair, makes Black women with permed hair curious. Non-blacks are also intrigued by it. They don’t hate it, they are just curious.

    Sure, you may have to really prove yourself at first in corporate America…and blow them away with your intellegence…but shouldn’t we be doing that anyway? It can be a hard task to prove yourself, but we should be used to it by now.

    Any place that would not hire you because of your hair..is not a place you need to be. Great businesses are built on diversity. And if you love yourself and your hair…your confidence will radiate and corporate America will be impressed.

    Because the truth is, the reason that Non- Blacks are still looking down on ethnic hair…is because most blacks do too. We have to start the change with us first:)

  10. Tonya says:

    I’m a natural hair stylist (side job) and I found this article to be so true. I have been natural for 2 years now and I can’t imagine ever being any other way. Truth is, becoming natural has made me more socially, and politically concious than I was before. I wear my hair in an afro, twist, braids….all of that, and I do notice how I am perceived by people, especially of our own race (black) two of the ladies in my office actually went natural after I started working there and one of them has converted back but the other hasn’t. Regardless it’s nice to just know that in this crazy office I work at where it’s already 10% black and 90% white……the sistas were supportive when the saw the “real” me. Sometimes “we” are our own worst enemies……..my mother lived in the era where she wore an afro, but the moment she saw my hair in twist she basically rebuked it and told me she like it better straight. My dad told her to mind her damn business because I looked good to him no matter what, lol, but in the South (I’m from NC) that is the attitude of a lot of black women unfortunately. The funny thing is, when I told my mom, well you used to wear an afro so what’s the problem, and she said she thinks she’d like my hair better if it was in an afro!!! Okay, big effing difference is what I was thinking. Doesn’t matter, she’s still my best friend, and she understands she WILL have to find someone else to perm her hair when I come home to visit because the the only thing worse than an afro is a hypocrite with an afro(Yeah, right) I love my natural hair because in claiming my God given beauty I have more free-dome than I ever have…….and freedom too 🙂 Peace & Blessings

  11. Rhonda says:

    When I had my stylist cut out my perm in 1997, I had already decided I was ready to do battle with anyone in the workplace who dared tell me my natural hair was unacceptable. I had already contacted the EEOC and had spoken with an attorney. Corporate America was NOT going to tell me, a Black woman, that my god given, natural hair was “unacceptable”. Well, it’s 2008, and I haven’t had any problems…but I thought I should be ready for battle…just in case…

  12. […] carry such different meaning for black women than it does for me. A few recent blogs piqued my interest and sparked reflection on my own professional image & hair […]

  13. lady odeda says:

    Hell Yeah….afro is back and I am sweatin my full blown like Angie did in the 70;s. The sisters at work dig it and give me a high five. So I will strut it like it t-i-tis! I am black and I am proud. How loud do I need to get : )
    I a m taking a sociology class and have learned so much about about the triumphs of Miss Davis and I applaud her for her actions for her people. I aint so down with the gay thing but hey…she’s Angela. I hear she does a prison thing for women too, I need to get with her on some tips. Can anyone lead me to her?
    Peace and love.
    Lady Odeda

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