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?
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:
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…