Ask the White Guy: Do Blacks Need to Relax Their Natural Hair to Get Promoted?

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Does corporate America discriminate against Black hair?Question: 

I am a Black woman from continental Africa who chooses to have natural Black hair, not relaxed or chemically altered in any way. I wear my natural hair not as some political statement but because it is the hair that God gave me and intended me to have, just as it was intended for some Caucasians to have blue eyes or blond hair. 

I have heard about women and men of African descent being overlooked for promotions or outright being fired because they choose to wear their natural hair, braids, twists, mini Afros, locs and so forth. I understand that you do not represent all white people nor do you speak for the whole white race, but I wanted to know if whites in general feel disdain for natural Black hair in corporate America, or is it just an overblown issue? 

Also, I have heard that the more “African” you look–dark-skinned, coarse hair (think Wesley Snipes, Whoopi Goldberg)–the more ignored and overlooked you will be in the workplace … and the more light-skinned or “whiter” you appear (think Halle Berry or Beyoncé) you appear, the easier it is to get promotions. Is this really all true? Are there “preferred” Blacks in corporate America? Isn’t diversity supposed to be inclusive of everyone–natural hair, blue eyes, fine hair, etc.? 

Also, why does wearing natural hair, braids, locs, twists or any “Black” hair style that accommodates and is more healthy for our hair structure have to always be perceived as something negative, or worse, “political”? Why does the coarse hair on my head need to relaxed or chemically altered to be “presentable” in the workplace? Please be honest.

Answer:

There’s no doubt in my mind that Black people have been overlooked for promotions because of natural hair or darker skin color. Psychological tests show that people most trust people who look like them. Since white men run most corporations in this country, straightened hair and/or lighter skin is going to be an advantage (disturbing, but let’s keep it real).

However, allowing a bias like this to go unchecked is detrimental to business, as hair texture has no connection to talent or ability. An inability to manage past immaterial things like this makes a company less competitive.


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This is where diversity management returns on investment. Companies that manage past bias and hire, mentor and promote equitably have better talent. They are also better prepared for the future as our country becomes more diverse. Our DiversityInc Top 50 data proves that representation is tied to recruitment and retention.

This isn’t a theory; it’s a reality for companies that earn a spot on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity. DiversityInc Top 50 companies have up to twice as much representation of Black, Latino and Asian people in management than the overall management work force in the United States.

Equity equals quality. That means a corporate culture that is so out of touch with reality as to not have good diversity management is not a good place for anyone to work–not just Black people.

If you think your company “isn’t ready for natural hair,” then you should check out our career center right now.

However, please consider this carefully: President Obama won a decisive majority of white people’s votes and diversity was a key factor in determining the 2012 election, so if you think your company really isn’t “ready for that,” it may be that your perception is out of date.

I think America is ready for the Black women (and men, but this is mostly a woman’s issue) in our lives to be more natural with their hair–and I’m looking forward to it.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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111 Comments

  • Anonymous

    As an African/British woman, having my hair in locs is one of the most freeing things I have ever done – see Myspace. Thankfully my daughter is following in my footstep!

  • Anonymous

    First, I want to thank Luke for his honesty once again. The subject of Blacks and how we should or should not style our hair has been hypothesized in both Black and White communities. Subsequently after reading many of the post I agree with both Lisa and Jeanine Hills.Unfortunately, this issue and the fact that we are discussing it is another piece of evidence (not like we need it) that systemic racism breeds both racial inferiority and superiority. However, without forums such as these we may never be able to speak about this issue so openly.Thanks everyone for their contributions.

  • As an African -American woman in a middle management position this article was timely for me. When I started working in my current facility I came here with a very low cut a Cesar with waves. I let my hair grow, then cut it then grow it out, all the while keeping it chemical free. I decided to Loc my hair 2 months ago and I was very excited about the process. I have an interview this week and I was concerned about the appearance of my hair and how I would be perceived. I even considered cutting it for the interview to look more professional. But then I thought about it, more professional in whose eyes. I have the same degrees and accomplishments no matter if my hair is Loced or bone straight. I hope that my hair does not become an issue. It is my hair and part of me; I would not change my hair for a promotion or a job. If the people hiring doing the hiring cannot see beyond my Locs then, do I really want to work in an environment that is that superficial? My hair should not be a factor in hiring or judging my ability to do a job.

  • Anonymous

    First let me say I am a caucasian of very northern european descent and have the blue eyes and hair and skin color of the stereotypical aryan. Although I think hair is a very personal matter and statement of style, I have always had a bit of a bias toward the natural hairstyles for all varieties of hair, as I do not think that it is really a positive statement of self image for anyone to try to look like some other race or ethnic group. So my bias has been in favor of those who wear their hair the way it grows out of their head, without any chemical intervention for color, curliness, whatever. I have always been aware of this and have been very careful not to let my bias influence any sort of decision concerning the worth of the person under the hair, but if asked I woudl have to say, “let it be” and be natural rather than artificial, regardless of your ethnicity.

  • Anonymous

    I believe it depends on what was the hairstyles of Blacks at the time you became part of the job. In other words, when you applied for a position, did you notice what type of hair styles the Black women were wearing? If you saw natural styles, braids, etc, along with relaxed hair, then you knew that such styles were accepted. However, did you ask any of those wearing such natural styles about promotions? In comparison to those women who wore natural styles, were they promoted just as equally as those who wore wigs, weaves or relaxed styles, or were they “looked over” or were considered last for promotions and assignments that would show off their skills? When it comes down to it, we need to be more observant of what Blacks in white corporate American are wearing, especially hair styles.I have dealt with high school kids going to interviews with the most ridiculous outfits and hairstyles, and get upset when they don’t get the job. Then I’ve seen adult Blacks “styling” like they’re going to the club or chilling with their hoodies at work or even on an interview. There is nothing wrong with natural styles. There are other people who are not black but have “naturally curly” (we call it “nappy”)that have to use relaxers (by the way, when you have curly or nappy hair, you relax, not perm. You perm when your hair is straight and you need curl or texture)that have been told that their hair is not acceptable.In this society, we sometimes have to conform, just to keep a job. When you accept a position, you are accepting the conditions of the company’s policies; those seen and unseen. Where I work, the natural styles are acceptable and are worn with class. Those who prefer to relax or wear wigs and weaves make sure that they are professional in their looks.But after work, you are on your time therefore you can wear your hair anyway you feel.

  • Anonymous

    A simple rule of thumb is: “If you think someone will look at your personal dress and grooming as unprofessional, you are probably right.” If you want the job, present yourself the way you think the employer wants to see you. If personal style or pride is more important than employment you are free to make it a higher priority. Since you are already aware that you are choosing to put yourself at a potential disadvantage, don’t be disappointed when you don’t get the job.

  • I would think that this is the same problem in America that my daughter has with her tattoos! She is a beautiful white, blue eyed twenty-one year old that has a artistic passion in life has always been driven to make sure people understand diversity, especially since her parents are Gay women. She has been looked at and turned down because of her two very beautiful tattoos on her arm and back. They make up who she is and she has had the hardest time getting a job in the “corporate world” if you want to call it that. They either think she is a gang member or on drugs which are both very wrong. When will America come to the right conclusion that everyone weather they are black with natural hair, white with tattoos or any other Diverse group around and believe they are good candidates to hire. I don’t like to think that in the 21st century we are still having these problems especially with all the companies that say they are Diverse and have Diversity and Inclusion in their Corporate statements that they are this stupid to not hire people for who they are not what they look like. Just my opinion.

  • Anonymous

    I am a white female in the professional workplace. It is my opinion that everyone should want to look their best when they arrive at work. I need to wash, curl, straighten, style, gel and spray my hair everyday… If I came to work with my hair “natural” I am sure someone would say something to me about my messy hair. I say Get Over it, and join the rest of us.

    • zannadanna

      The standard of professionalism is straight hair. As black people, our hair is naturally the farthest from straight. So all the white women posting about how much they have to change to fit in, just imagine what black women have to go through. In order for black people to have straight hair, we have to either relax it with harsh chemicals that destroy/burn our hair and scalp or we have to buy wigs/weaves. So constantly maintaining straight hair is an unachievable goal. The problem is that because this hair issue only effects us, and there are so few blacks in the corporate world, we have no representation. White people still think that an afro is a “hairstyle” or a form of “self expression” they are ignorant of the fact that even if we comb, wash, and oil our hair, it will still be an afro. Its not a style or expression, its what our hair looks like. There needs to be diversity training in this matter. If a manager didn’t hire an asian because he was afraid that he couldn’t open his eyes wide enough, that would be discrimination. So why are we being penalized because our hair cannot be straight without harmful chemicals?? As long as the appearance is neat and you can perform the job then nothing else should matter. And for anyone that commented who thinks we should conform because that is the norm. Slavery used to be the norm also. That didn’t make it right.

    • You cannot compare a white woman doing her hair to look “presentable” to the debate that is going on here. No one is saying (from the comments I’ve read thus far), that people of color should have the right to come to work with a messy 70s type large, unkempt, unwashed Afro. If it is short, or medium length, well-maintained, then THAT is well-kept for OUR HAIR. Well-kept for Caucasian hair is COMBING AND STYLING IT, so that it lays flat and is not of the “fly away” variety. If one’s hair is kinky, then one has no choice in how it grows out of our heads.

      You relate “natural” to how your hair looks when you wake up in the morning. It is messy and uncombed. Yes, it is not professional to show up at work looking like that. What we are debating here in terms of “natural” is unprocessed, non-straightened hair not uncombed hair. The two are so different. What people of color want is to be able to not get stupid comments or be accused of being “angry militants”, just for wearing our hair as God/Nature gave us. If you, as a Caucasian woman, cannot recognize the external forces in the beauty industry that even encourage White women to wear makeup when men don’t have to, shave one’s legs (again when men don’t have to), or even wear skirts, then it is YOU who is brainwashed and clueless. Not that I am getting all feminist up in here (I am a gay man) but this also affects women in general of all races! Just do a Google search of women who were fired for not wearing make-up (though they were clean, dressed professionally and only stood out because of their desire not to wear makeup). These forces in the corporate world need to be addressed because it affects all women.

  • Anonymous

    To DONNA KAYSI am also a white female. DONNA, YOU MISSED THE POINT. This is not about being lazy to do whatever you need to do to make your natural hair look good. This is a social issue about people not accepting perfectly work appropriate hair style (a.k.a. professional) because it is curly or an afro or twists, or whatever. Who is anybody to say that this or that style (straight, curly, short, long, twists, bangs, pulled up, lose, bundt, etc.) is professional or work appropriate or not? Yes, we all want to keep certain decorum in the work place, but it has nothing to do with hair styles. If men want to wear their hair long, I just say, keep it clean. Why ask of men to wear a pony tail when you don’t ask the same from a woman? The same applies to african americans hair. Why ask of them to straighten it or do anything else to it regarding the style, when you wouldn’t ask white or asian or hispanic folks to wear any particular style? I feel for african americans that are struggling with this issue. And I would encourage them to wear their hair as natural as possible and to hold themselves and each other only to the grooming standards which apply to all in the work place, regardless of race and hair type (which by the way should only be concerned with whether the hair is clean and neat. May be that will help people begin to accept that no particular hair style is telling of any particular trait of any person (whether you are smart, or not, professional or not, etc.).To everybody, be kind to your hair and be kind to other people! I hope that we ALL can help change the way african americans have been unfairly and irracionally treated when it comes to this issue.

  • Anonymous

    I find most of the comments very interesting, but I’m amazed that no one has mentioned that (I believe) a black woman invented some of the products to modify hair to “look more mainstream” and while this shouldn’t be necessary in our enlightened (???) era, black hair products have made some black folks wealthy and more able to have their childreneducated to move up to professional positions!

  • Anonymous

    Whether to change a hairstyle to make oneself more “promotable” should not be an issue, although I’m sure it is. I’m a white woman who once was fired from a lowly waitress job because my supervisor did not like my long straight hair, which was shining clean, tied back, and covered with the mandatory hairnet during work hours. Nobody should be passed over for a promotion because of hair style, skin color, or body shape, but it happens. When it happens, the best answer is to take ones skills to a more open-minded employer. However, that isn’t always possible. There have been times in my life when I was not in a position to do that, and just had to take my lumps. I have been passed over because I was newly married and might want to start a family soon, because I was not athletic enough, because the job was at a rough school and called for a male teacher, and because I did not socialize enough with the “in” crowd at work. I’m now old enough to face age discrimination. Sometimes we just have to take our lumps and learn to be philosophical. Think long and hard about which is most important, the promotion or your freedom of expression.

    • zannadanna

      The hair that grows out of my head is not a form of expression. If I shaved all my hair off and it grew 3 inches even if I wash, comb, and oil it, it will still be an afro. In order for my hair to be straight, I have to put harsh chemicals in it that burn my scalp and make my hair fall out. Or I can spend money I don’t have to buy a wig. If I have to burn my hair off or buy a wig then the message I am being sent is that black people are not allowed at this job. By requiring that my hair do the impossible is a less blatant form of racism. Work skills are what is important, not my hair’s ability to withstand punishment. Self expression has nothing to do with this.

  • Anonymous

    No way,I think hair should be natural. No grease,oils,dyes,etc. unless a medical condition warrants a wig or chemicals. We are all different and let’s celebrate our differences.

  • Anonymous

    Jealousy, Hater… Maybe?As an African American I read this article and the associated comments and could not help but think back to the “good ole days,” when our ancestors were called “darkey,” or “big lipped,” even “big but.” But what I have come to understand is that those people were often jealous of our wonderful looks. Look at “copper tone” and various other tanning creams, and don’t forget the multi-million dollar tanning salon industry as an example of a group of people who wanted to look more like us. Think of the injections that some get to enjoy fuller lips, or, a shapelier “bottom.”And on our side, there are those who want to look more European, see Michael Jackson as yet one example…this desire to assimilate goes both ways as we are often taught not to appreciate what we have been given; but this is changing and there is nothing that Madison Avenue can do to stop it. There is a new generation that is here, one that is ready to accept you as you are, and one that accepts who they are. There are only a small percentage of those who “hang on to the way it use to be,” and their “hater days” are rapidly coming to an end.

  • Anonymous

    I am Caucasian, but have been told at work that wearing my hair down in its natural curly state at work is too wild/unprofessional. I put a lot of effort into getting under control every morning. I know it’s far more difficult for black women to get their hair into a state that’s more acceptable to white sensibilities. However, at most professional workplaces, there will be standards of what look is professional that apply to both races.

    • zannadanna

      But no one is asking you to change the texture of your hair. If ANYONE comes to work with wild hair all over their heads then yes it is unprofessional. But you’d only have to comb or flat iron your hair. I’d have to put harsh chemicals in my hair every 6-8 weeks that will burn my scalp and make my hair fall out. Or spend more money on wigs and hair pieces. This is past conformity, this is about fairness. If we both had to work in the hot sun for 8 hrs, I can do it without sunblock. Can you? Probably not. But it wouldn’t be fair for you to have to work without sunblock and a hat when you know it would give you sun burn and cause you pain. You’d want someone to understand your plight. Now all we ask is that white people do the same.

  • Anonymous

    Luke, thank you for your candid response. I would suggest people not rely too heavily on the Diversity rankings though. I work for a company on the top 30 list, and I would say they do an excellent job on branding their diversity message, but a poor job of implementing it. You only need to look at the lack of diversity in senior leadership.

  • As an attorney, I work in the legal field which tends to be conservative. My hair is natural with no straightening chemicals in it. Whenever I have applied for a job and been granted an interview, I always straighten my hair and wear it pulled back in a bun just because I’d rather play it safe and err on the side of being conservative. For some reason and for some people, Black or White, natural hair on a Black woman is a political statement. Once I get the job, I then wear my hair in any style that I choose, such as natural, straight, or in braids. Whatever style I choose, I make sure that it looks professional. I love that fact that the new CEO of Xerox Ursula Burns sports a short natural!

  • Anonymous

    I work for a “liberal” non-profit and there are a couple of us naturals there. I’ve never heard a negative comment, but the reaction I received when I straightened my hair one day was surprising. My hair was literally the talk of the office all day, with people even coming from different floors to “check it out” and saying how “different” I looked( and they were implying it was different in a good way) I was on the elevator with my white colleague when she blurted out ” So is that a weave?” in front of other people. Her eyes were wide open with astonishment when I explained that I could straighten my hair and revert back as much as I pleased. I never wore my hair straight to work again!

  • Anonymous

    Earlier this year, I made the decision to forgo the relaxer I had worn since I was nine. I’m 26 now. And I had myself convinced that relaxed hair was more manageable, easier to deal with and, honestly, more beautiful. I never felt more pretty than the first day I had a fresh relaxer and my hair was silky straight and flowing. I’m now nearly 9 months into my natural transition, and I’ve never felt more beautiful. It took a complete shift in perception for me to feel this way in the first place. I don’t knock women who wear their hair in a relaxer. I just hope that it is the product of a personal choice and weighing all their options, as opposed to a choice that was imposed on them as a child that they were never able to get past.As black women, I truly believe we are all beautiful the way we choose to be. If that means relaxed or with a silky straight weave, so be it. If it means wearing kinky, curly hair, dreads or braids, then so be it. India Arie said it best. I am not my hair. I made my decision because I’m trying to live a more chemical-free lifestyle overall, and if it ever inhibits my ability to get a job or be perceived as a professional, then that’s a consequence I’ll have to live with. And I’ll do my best to try to educate the ignorant people who would perpetuate that kind of stereotype and hope for the best next time.

  • Anonymous

    Luke Visconti’s White Guy blog is new to me. So is blogging. But, I couldn’t help but go to this site when I saw the article among several that popped up under ‘black natural hair’ as I was exploring what the current trend is for wearing black naural hair as I have noticed some differences since the trend started in the 1960′s. I keep trying to catch these quick commercials where black women are looking so cute and sexy with hair that seems barely combed to me. So, I’m trying to see whether that is a look or my imagination.

    Right now,I am wearing my own black natural hair. Over the years, since Martin Luther King’s assassination, I have worn several different styles including a short and evenly cut Afro immediately following his death ( I was supposed to get a touch up perm but had my hair cut very short, instead. It was the least I could do). This was followed two years later by an Arfro wig….Jeri curl, relaxed hair, hot comb straightened hair, hair weave to camouflage breakage, corn rows to grow out a relaxer, and now I am back to a natural as a result of retiring and seeing how carefree and different the natural now looks.

    And,it is different . One of the things that strikes me as different about today’s natural is that neither women nor men feel compelled to cut their hair short and even all over and neither do they feel compelled to comb long natural hair out and have it puffed all over the head like Angela Davis and Rap Brown wore theirs.

    To me, today’s social climate indicates more tolerance/acceptance and allows black women to wear their natural so that the kinks actually show. It’s a kinker style than was worn when I first wore a natural in the late 1960′s. I have been surprised by the way that my hair curls on its own and how sensuous and soft it feels ( I do use Sta Sof Fro). I have a wonderful beautician who keeps the nape and back of my hair cut close and short in a ‘V” shape. I allow no cutting of the front and top layers. I simply love my hair and this wonderful style that I am wearing! My scalp feels so good since I have not put any straightening chemicals in my hair for two years, now. I feel freer and I feel like I am really taking care of myself. Right, now, I’m contemplating combing my hair less because I want my hair to grow longer and the daily combing snaps off the tiny coils of curl that my hair forms.

    But, I must say that caring for my natural hair is no picnic. It takes time and effort to keep it groomed and looking nice. And, I more clearly understand why when I was working (and had to work) that I vacillated back and forth over the years between a natural and processed hair. Wearing natural kinky hair takes time and care if you don’t want to snap it off each morning.Time that I did not have while working and trying to be on time.

  • Wonder if PBO,wa to ware his hair longer would he be cast as being militant or just a guy wearing his hair longer to keep his head warmer.

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