Don’t Talk About My Hair: The Woes of Being Black at Work

Why organisations need to break down exclusionary cultural norms

Renee Kapuku Ed.M.
Nov 10, 2019 · 4 min read
Samanta Sophia via Unsplash:

As I closed up a session with one of my personal mentors last year, we had a conversation about our experiences at work so far. I was working part-time as an office receptionist.

I’m fortunate enough that my mentor is as keen on diversity and inclusion as I am, with a plethora of organisations, programmes and schemes under his belt. He asked me how work was going so far.

I smiled ruefully, laughing a little, as I recounted some of the experiences of the past week.

“I’m also a little bit worried…” I started, but trailed off as I thought about the absurdity of what I would say next.

“Go on. What are you worried about?” My mentor said, looking up and catching my eye square on. I blushed, looking at my shoes.

“My hair. I’m going to change it from braids to a weave — and I’m not sure I can if I’ll be able to handle the comments.”

My mentor also smiled ruefully. “The joys of being a black woman in the workplace, huh?”

It was a small exchange, followed by a more general and fleshed-out conversation about black authenticity in the workplace and whether people of African and Caribbean backgrounds can ever bring their full selves to the work place.

We spoke about the overwhelming implicit cultural symbols which either compelled assimilation, or forced erasure.

We talked about the imposter syndrome and lack of confidence diverse candidates felt long after securing the job and the lack of mobility within the work force due to existing cultural biases.

Whenever there is a conversation about diversity in organisations, it always centres on recruitment and Human Resources. We always talk about ways of attracting talent, rather than brainstorm ways in which we can keep talent.

We think about ways in which we can create ‘the pipeline’ rather than ways we can keep people once they have entered the pipeline.

We think about ways we can make the workplace appear more diverse and inclusive without considering the practical implications of creating a real diverse and inclusive working environment.

There have been many a speech made by CEOs and Heads of Diversity which touch on ensuring that candidates, irrespective of who they are or where they come from, are given the opportunity to get their foot in the door, or a seat at the table.

But what happens when you step through the door? What happens when you are finally sat down at the table?

What happens when suddenly, you spend the majority of your time with no-one that looks like you, sounds like you, or has experienced anything you have ever gone through? What happens when the music you listen to, the food you eat and the clothes that you wear will not be culturally or socially acceptable? What happens when your hair becomes politicised or — worse — the butt of jokes at work?

What do you do when everything you stand for suddenly stands for nothing?

People tend to focus so much on bringing people to these spaces that they forget to ask:

just how much of their authentic self can they bring to these places?

I was born and raised on a council estate in urban North London. I was surrounded by predominantly working-class, non-white immigrants for the majority of my life.

When I found myself in Oxford, Harvard and in the workforce beyond, I found that there were times where I could not be as fully present as my white co-workers. I could not crack the same jokes. I wasn’t interested in the drinking-culture. I did not feel comfortable bringing my personal life to work.

Organisations need to focus on creating a culture that is truly inclusive. One where we can talk about actual social cues and more implicit biases which we cannot always quantify. This goes beyond a quota and bringing in diversity, but subjecting our cultural norms to greater scrutiny. It means being dedicated to hearing out personal experiences as well as statistical analysis, it means being aware of the normalisation and reward of very specific experiences against others, and it means, most of all, being open.

Do not talk about my hair.

As a black woman, my hair has been heavily policed and politicised all my life. The politics of respectability versus the very real practicalities of dealing with type 4c hair means that I’ve been in a constant turmoil about with my hair.

I also don’t want to explain or validate any part of my experience or my cultural practices in a space where it cannot be accomodated.

Do not expect marginalised people to educate or openly share their experiences if you are not willing to help co-create an environment where this is possible.

We need to do better.

If you see a black woman has changed her hair and you have not established a relationship in which your commentary is inoffensive. If you see a young black man has walked into the office early in the morning with his durag still on and some rice and chicken in hand in tupperware. If you notice a young black person listening to their ethnic or cultural music.

Don’t ask them.

Ask yourself — do we have a relationship or environment which would not make them feel uncomfortable?

If the answer is no, then Houston — we have a problem.

Not a diversity problem

A cultural one.

Renee Kapuku Ed.M.

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