By: Bie Aweh M.Ed
Picture day at work can be an exciting time: not only are you becoming an official part of the team, the brand, but it is also another excuse to buy new clothes. The most exciting part, for me at least, is to be able to update my Linkedin profile. All that said, unfortunately, picture day can also invoke a lot of unnecessary anxiety for me. Not because I am camera shy–just check my Instagram–because while I think my natural hair is awesome, many others still think that it is….different. Never mind that I have a stellar work ethic, or that I contribute to student success daily at the number one public university in the world. All these things seem to not matter once people see my natural hair, because all of a sudden both my hair and I are identified as “unprofessional”.
The anxiety I experience does not only come up during picture day, it comes up as I am preparing for interviews. I generally love interviewing and feel quite confident that when I am in an interview, I am absolutely flourishing! My anxiety manifests itself as I am trying to figure out how to professionally style my hair. Forget the fact that women worry about what to wear; I am in the group of Black women and girls who have been told that unless your hair is straight, it is not professional thus undesirable. Hence, a large portion of my interview prep consists of me staring in a mirror trying to style my hair in the least distracting way so that my interviewer doesn’t have a chance to focus on the stereotypical images of Black people they may have been consumed through the media. This is what renowned social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele calls stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to “ a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group”. This directly correlates to the feeling of constantly wondering if and what stories are being projected onto me simply because of my locs by those interviewing me — something I highly doubt my non Black colleagues have to worry about.
Who determines professionalism? What ideals are informing notions of professionalism that essentially tell Black women, like myself, that because we choose to embrace our authentic selves, we are suddenly not “professional”? Naturally, I did what every millennial does when we have a question, I googled unprofessional hair. (I invite you all to do the same.) I was not surprised by the mostly Black faces in the populated results. Essentially, my search affirmed the discomfort and anxiety I felt all along. Black women in general, but especially Black women who have natural hair, do not fit into this idea of professionalism. So does this mean our hair is good enough to warrant stares, or worse, petting, but not good enough for the office?
A Call to Action: Creating inclusive work spaces
For many companies who are attempting to address ongoing concerns of inclusion, it is crucial to unpack the term professionalism and how people of color and gender nonconforming people fit into that paradigm. This DOES NOT mean you are lowering your standards, nor does it mean that you should not continue to ask and expect your employees to conduct themselves in appropriate behavior and adhere to things like dress codes. It DOES mean that within those expectations, you are leaving room for people like myself to feel like we can show up wearing our natural hair and not be judged or assumed less competent because of it. Inclusion is no doubt a buzzword these days, but it is my hope that this piece offers critical and concrete experiences to consider, which can and should inform efforts towards making workplaces more inclusive. People do their best work when they are allowed to be their authentic selves; therefore, companies must be committed to creating work cultures that encourages this. So, the next time someone comes into your office with their natural threads, rather than stare blankly, provide a compliment or say nothing at all and continue to work. That is ok!
As for my professional headshot, I finally gathered the courage to rock my natural threads and prove that, contrary to popular belief, you can be an incredible educator, doctor, lawyer, or engineer, and rock natural hair!