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 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.
It’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.
Hair 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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