Hair Politics: The Anxiety Black Americans Face with the Return to the Workplace

Adia Ayanna
The Comeback of Culture
5 min readMay 6, 2021


We’d just finished eating a hearty breakfast when the cashier gawked at my boyfriend and I.

I waited for him to ask if we were siblings (as most people do) but instead, his face contorts into confusion as he asks, “Is it real?”

I can see the same curiosity people get at the zoo — his eyes take in every coil and kink on our heads.

Technically, it’s a simple question that some would urge us to brush off. But as he hands back my boyfriend’s credit card, his eyes dazzled in shock after we mumbled, “Yes, it’s real,” in unison.

The absurdity of hair texture has chained generations of Black people into believing straighter hair is safer hair. The unforeseen future of COVID-19 separated Black people from hair salons, allowing them to explore their natural hair without prying eyes. But with the “new normal” of masks and zoom conference calls starting to see their end, a familiar anxiety returns to Black people as the politics of hair are re-added to the list of stressors.

The strange reality of living in an assumed “post-racist” society is the false narrative that textured hair is welcomed. Horror stories of young Black students being faced with repercussions for their hair snap reality back into perspective, as black hair is still weaponized. To the color-blind world though, poignant displays of virtue signaling that plaster Black faces next to huge Black Lives Matter posters is enough for them to believe equality is making decent strides.

Frank B. Wilderson’s Afropessimism describes the odd “reassurement” blackness offers America poignantly when he remarks, “I was the foil of Humanity. Humanity looked to me when it was unsure of itself.” In reality, blackness, escpeially hair, comes with the heavy burden of “otherness”. Just as afro-textured hair, box braids, and locs are questioned as work appropriate, pop culture is able to find marketability in their otherness by slapping “urban” on it.

Set aside the Kylie Jenner’s who profit from Black styles, the resistance to natural hair in the workplace is somehow met with hesitation. Regardless of campaigns or protests done across the world, the weariness of Black hair being work-friendly has left plenty of Black professionals and students in a purgatory of choice: to accept their hair or reject it to conform?

My brother, Kamal Carter, is well known for his outspoken rants and noble dedication to educating Black kids in poorer neighborhoods about their history and self-worth. As a man who wears his coils proudly, he was enraged to learn that most of his senior students were affected by hair politics as they inched closer to corporate America.

Even with the sliver of hope that Gen Z has a shot at more progressive takes on natural hair, Black students receive the most hate for their hair inside the classroom. It only worsens the matter when most work environments live by 24/7 professionalism, engraining in black students that blending must begin with their hair.

“They’re teaching these kids to be comfortable with erasing their blackness,” my brother explains as we sit outside a bustling Dancing Goat café. Even in areas like Midtown, Atlanta, we both became uncomfortably aware that as the only black people with afro-textured hair, we stuck out.

Just a few blocks away from Dancing Goat, Suzanne Brown shared the same sentiments on her tiny studio balcony. Just twenty years of living in Atlanta, followed by abandoning her PH.D in African American Studies, Brown became exasperated with the neverending fight. For the ex-professor, she’d endured enough to understand that her identity and display of resistance through her hair was tiresome. It was a, “never-ending trigger that did nothing in the end,” for Brown.

After nearly fifteen years of wearing her natural hair, she made the decision to buzz it as she confesses, “I was stuck in between for too long.”

The in-between, or code-switching identity Black people live with is the uncomfortable hyper-awareness that pieces the complicated puzzle of black hair: even when worn proudly, exotification can be lethal. Throw in the mix of microaggresions and the dreadful hand-in-the-fro, wearing ones natural hair becomes an inconvenient target, hence why straight hair can be a shield of assimilation.

Glenda Moss is a retired hair stylist who was known in her hometown for her contributions to Civil Rights. At the ripe age of 73, she wears her hair in short twists — a way of “old fashioned protest” she later says.

For Moss, presentation meant survival in rural South Carolina. As the daughter of former Sharecroppers, she was accustomed to monthly relaxers and straighteners just as racist neighbors were to slurs. Once Moss discovered her voice through activism in her twenties, she ditched the processors and proudly picked her hair out.

“It was the closest you could get to giving the finger,” Moss laughs. “My parents were so scared I’d be poor for putting myself out there, but activists were taught to uplift our Black features.”

For tons of African Americans, the return to their original textures is a crucial step in dissecting the complicated identity that comes with being descendents of Enslaved People. It’s through hair that the youth can rebel, just as Moss did in the mid-60s.

When the natural hair movement made waves in 2014, Black kids could finally see the hair textures they were taught to hate romanticized in hair commercials and YouTube Ads. Still, only partial waves were made.

“Texturism is the thing we have to remember,” my brother reminds me. “In the workplace, and even back on plantations, having looser curls and lighter skin was having a foot in the door.” Colorist ideals reach deep into the vein of the black community, that even black film and music videos uplift fairer skin and looser hair textures. In twisted messages of self-love, the media further perpuates its unspoken preference that coincedently trickles back into the workplace.

Moss believes “identity cherry-picking” and rejection in Western culture is the reason for depression in Black adults. “You tell someone they can only be half of themselves to survive, what do you get?” Moss’s question highlights the indescribable emptiness that is felt in Black culture as we grapple to figure out how to accept ourselves in a society that encourages antiblackness.

How do we cope?

“All we can do is not back down on who we are, and hopefully the kids coming up can adopt the same thoughts,” my brother concludes.

I managed to think back to the brunch encounter with more clarity — even though the presence of Black hair has come a long way, there will always be lingering eyes that see afro-textured hair as strange, or exotic. The uncertainty goes beyond just reminding people not to be racist. It lies in re-wiring the minds of Black teens and adults so their identity in America doesn’t need to be conditional — they can can exist, natural hair or not, and not feel “othered” for it.