Black women’s hair is risky in the workplace

Black women’s hair in the workplace is a thorny issue. Many see going natural as a risk choice which could provoke anything from thoughtless comments to outright dismissal.  The pressure is highest in customer-facing roles. There have been reports of hotel receptionists, waitresses, and front-of-house staff being forced out of their job for having natural hair.  And anyone who travels for work is likely to face invasive searches  of their natural hair at the airport.

Black women's hair

Black women’s hair when left to its own narural natural devices in the workplace faces open curiosity from colleagues. Many women receive questions about styling or maintenance which aren’t asked to women who relax their hair or wear straight weaves.  It might not be meant disrespectfully, but these kinds of questions are a constant reminder that you’re different from the norm.  After all, if your colleagues are genuinely curious about black hairstyles, there are plenty of YouTube videos which could answer their questions.They don’t have to ask the only black woman in the office.

Political symbolism and black women’s hair

There’s a huge amount of political symbolism tied up in black women’s hair. Remember the furore when the New Yorker published a cartoon  showing Michelle Obama with an Afro?  Schoolgirls in Pretoria, South Africa, recently picketed their own school after schoolgirls with Afros were punished for not looking ‘neat’.   After seeing how work colleagues reacted to her Afro, photographer Endia Beale released “Can I Touch It?” , a series of portraits featuring middle-aged white women with black hairstyles like finger waves which are banned in many offices.

Read: Having it all fails women of color

Natural hair in the workplaceIt’s depressingly common for black women to be advised to “tone down” or “neaten” their hairstyles. Last month, lawyer Tracy Sanders released a book called “Natural Hair In The Workplace: What Are Your Rights?” She aims to clear up some of the legal confusion, at least within the US.  A 1991 court verdict  ruled that hair texture is an immutable characteristic and therefore employers cannot force black employees to straighten their hair. But black hairstyles like braids or cane rows are a choice and it’s technically legal for employers to ban them.

Discriminating on grounds of appearance

Amazingly, there is no current law preventing employers from discriminating on grounds of appearance. It crosses over into illegality when the employer’s policies overlap with another protected class, such as age or religion. You could fire a receptionist for being ugly, but not for looking old or being Asian.

Read: Burkini the latest dress code issue for women

34064414 - young business people discussing on adhesive notesHair is a bit of a grey area, since plenty of hairstyles are indicative of a particular race or ethnicity.  Although some workplaces officially ban certain hairstyles, most have weakly-worded grooming policies. These say that hair should be neat or tell employees to ‘avoid extreme hairstyles’.

The trouble is that it’s usually left up to managers to make subjective judgements about what kind of hairstyle is acceptable under the policy. Too many managers have the knee-jerk reaction that anything different must be ‘extreme’. Try typing “unprofessional hairstyles” into Google Images. You will get nothing but images of black women. Mainstream faminism still tends to be a white, middle class conversation.

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Alice Bell

About Alice Bell

"Alice writes online about business, popular science, and women's lifestyle. After a few years working her way around the world, she has settled in the north of England and taken a day job as a maths teacher. Her life's ambition is to earn enough money to start repaying her student debt."