Natural Hair is Professional

pro·fes·sion·al — c (1) : characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace (Merriam-Webster)

So, let’s talk about my hair. I grew up with natural hair that was styled with braided extensions for style and ease throughout grade school. I loved it, until I didn’t, and I begged my mom for a relaxer. She said, “no,” even after I wrote her a letter explaining my position and reasoning.

I was almost 13 when I got my first relaxer. It burned but I felt like I had achieved a goal. I didn’t have thick luscious hair, but I had a lot of hair that mostly did what I wanted it to, and my obsession with hair led to me trying tons of styles. It thrived in the summer time and grew, until that time it broke — badly when I was 16.

I was almost 17 when, after 3 months of no relaxers, and inspiration from amazing new friend with the cutest natural twa, who I met at a summer math and science program (#nerdlife), I cut my hair and rocked short natural styles and braids for my senior year of high school.

In college, I was one a few people I knew with natural hair. It was college so I experimented with color, twists, headwraps, and updos with complete freedom. I had summer internships and jobs, but I usually had buns and braids. I even had a brief stint when I was following “relaxed hair journeys” on Fotki, and I got a relaxer and grew my hair to the longest it had ever been at the time. But then I craved my ‘fro and went back.

Fast forward to graduate school, and with a truly new experience I wanted to make a “good” impression and not stress about my hair. I got a weave, and since it had been awhile since I had a weave I wasn’t prepared for the lack of access to my scalp and the general feeling (after a few weeks) that I was wearing a hat. I wanted to unleash the ‘fro, so after pondering deeply with “should I?, shouldn’t I?” anxiety I took out the weave and began styling my hair in any updo that my imagination fancied. I got a lot of compliments, even from professors and I felt good about attending interviews and networking events with natural hair.

Despite navigating undergrad, some work experiences, and grad school, I still had some unease about styling my natural hair in my first job after grad school. I thought about it a lot. I thought about it when I had an in-depth conversation with a colleague who said she admired my natural hair, but was scared about how it would impact her career. I thought about it when students at my job would ask me questions about what they could do with their natural hair. I thought about it when a white co-worker complimented my hair (In a high puff) and reached in and grabbed my roots for a feel.

I felt somewhat empowered to do something for the students I was working with, so I held a panel with black women with natural hair in various styles, textures, and lengths. They were doctors, lawyers, and consultants and students had a nice dinner and facilitated panel to ask these women anything they wanted about professional hair and style. We didn’t change the world, but it was a great forum for representation and good advice. That was a few years ago.

It is now 2016, and there have been a litany of hair-related stories about black women at work and school. A litany. Read here, here, here, here, here and here, for a taste of what’s out there. And now there is this recent ruling that it was legal for a company not to hire a woman, because she refused to cut her locs. The company said that they were asking the woman to abide by their grooming policies, and she refused to do so, so they rescinded the offer.

So, is natural hair professional? There are more than a few articles online asking the question. The fact that this is a question bothers me a bit more, now that I’m older. Why?

“Professional” is pretty subjective, one of the definitions uses the word “businesslike” and frankly that is subjective. The world of work/office space culture was birthed at a time when black women with natural hair were not invited to the party. When new spaces, i.e. work spaces, recreation spaces, etc. are opened up to more diverse groups, existing rules and policies get fuzzy. Those rules and policies were created with one group in mind and then, here come the women, and the brown people and the black people and the…millennials. These new groups shake things up, and make things weird for institutions.

Here’s the thing — black women and their natural hair, are here. They are smart, educated and ambitious people who have a right to earn a living and use their skills and talents.

The real question is not if natural hair is professional, the question is really: Is an employer’s definition of “professional” truly reflective of their clients, customers and employees and aligned with the goals of the business/organization?

If you are in a position to hire people, and you choose to make recruiting decisions based on antiquated perspectives of what it means to professional, you might want to consider redefining your perspective of professionalism before your bottom-line starts spewing numbers you don’t understand, and you start getting results that you don’t like.

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