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

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.

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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126 Comments

  • Anonymous

    People assume I am wearing a weave or have a perm and I seem to have to explain to them that my hair is naturally long, It seems to be hard for people to accept different hair textures. I have found more problems with Latinos in this regard that assume that my hair must be fake or something. I personally blow dry and curl my hair. Beyond that I don’t like chemicals, but if that is what someone else chooses to do to their hair and they look nice doing it then so be it. I do prefer hair that looks combed though. I can’t stand these looks that just look unkempt, braids are attractive, but too much hair looking wild is something else altogether.

  • Anonymous

    I am a white male; But I think natural looks better. I look at it this way. Be happy with yourself naturally. I love it. But I think It depends on the person!

  • Anonymous

    What if the workforce issue is mostly about “STRAIGHT HAIR” and not “NATURAL HAIR?”

    You can have straight hair relaxed or natural. So, to please the boss man…straighten it!!!

    That issues is totally outside of the realm of what is really going on in the hearts of black women. Our issues are “Is MY natural hair beautiful to me? OR How would I see myself in the eyes of whites if I were to wear my natural hair?”

    If you care about what whites think concerning your hair…then that tells you alot. If you become angry about it…then it tells you alot.

    Whenever I read articles about the topic…alot of the times I see that relaxed ladies are mad that they are ridiculed for relaxing their hair. I do not become angry when someone says natural hair is wrong for whatever reason, because I am at peace with my hair and don’t see myself going back to relaxed hair.

    There is something to this “anger” and this “peace.” We need to analyze it, so that we may grow to love our natural selves. I love it, because God made me this way!

  • Anonymous

    I think there is a difference between styling hair and having to chemically change the natural texture of it. One is temporary for a look (professional or otherwise) and the other one is demaging to both the hair and human health.

    I have been burned by hot combs since the age of five and now am balding along my temples because of relaxers. I DO wash my hair (what is left) regularly and style it as well. Twists, cornrows, and locs require time and effort–nobody just wakes up with a head full of two-stranded twists. It took me several hours to complete mine today.

    I agree everyone has to be groomed for work. The only thing I ask is for white people to realize that:

    1) Afro hair is a genetic trait not a style from the 60s. Should Asians get eyelid surgery to look professional? Afro hair is the most fragile hair type because of its multipe spiral bends, despite its woolen texture.

    2) For afro hair to look straight require caustic, chemicals or intense heat that cause scars, burns and balding. To the woman who said, we (blacks) should get over it because she too has to style her hair…how would you feel if your job required you to go to the tanning salon, exposing yourself to UV rays and possible skin cancer so that you would look “darker, healthier and suitable for the work environment” and then tell you to get over it when skin lesions appeared on you.

    I have white people in my family and I have afro hair (I am black). My white family members tell me to be proud of my hair because they know that afro hair is a challenge.

  • Anonymous

    I am a black woman with beautifully groomed locs. My hair has been natural now for about 15 years, and I have mastered the art of making my locs passable in my corporate workplace by pulling it back into a tight neat bun. My hair is not wild, messy, unclean, or untamed.

    However, I know that the days where this style works for me are coming to an end. I will be graduating with my MBA in finance, which may be the most conservative profession around. While I excel at what I do, I know that I cannot hope to find a job with my hair like this, no matter how healthy, neat, clean, and beautiful it is.

    The truth is, I cannot afford to stick to my principles on this one, and I am saddened by this fact. In order to keep my natural hair, I would have to change professions. Pressing is not an option because of the smell, and braids are just as bad as locs in the eyes of the corporation. So, to get the job, I have to inflict the violence of a relaxer on my body. As stated above, the chemicals used to straighten hair cause severe burns, blindness, balding, and are toxic to the body. I am dreading this process.

    It took me a long time to be comfortable with my natural hair texture. I had to learn to accept myself, love myself, and feel beautiful no matter what society thought of me. Many little black girls grow up feeling bad about themselves because they can never get their hair close enough to white hair. Now that I have conquered that, and learned to love myself as I am, I am beginning to see that my natural hair is a luxury that I cannot afford.

    This is my last summer with my natural hair. Sometimes I cry, mourning the loss of my culture, and the right to my racial identity, I hope that middle and upper class women are able to fight this fight, and push these walls down. For me as a working class woman, to survive, to put food on the table, to give my children the possibility of a better life, I have to surrender my crown, and make the sacrifice.

  • This is a very good article. I do believe that this is an issue that needs to be talked about, especially during times when alot of us like to believe that attitudes towards non-whites, specifically blacks has changed, and racism is a thing of the past—all are accepted…the way they are. This could not be farther from the truth. ‘Black’ or Indigenous naturality has always been an issue with the Eurocentric world, and it goes a whole lot deeper then ‘non-professionalism’. Personally I believe that it has to do with stripping a people of their identity and culture. Wrather we like to admit it or not, any one or thing that has been stripped of originality or naturality will malfunction in a sense, and no I am not saying that people with permed hair malfunction. But I will say to those who do not like to be criticized for wearing perms or weaves. Evaluate just how long you have been wearing your hair in perms or weaves…Most of you have since childhood.(This excludes Blacks with naturally straiht or curly hair) Truly ask yourself just why you wear weaves, perms, or undergo other forms of chemical processing. The answer will most likely be because those in your families criticized natural African hair while you were growing up and while in the process of processing your hair, made you feel as though you or you hair were not good enough. Ask yourself how many times you heard about someone in your family, circle of friends, or maybe even you; talk about ‘nappy, black, and ugly’; or ‘good hair vs bad hair.’

    Yes of course there are those who do perm jst for the sake of doing it, but subconsciously majority of Black women alter their hair because they have been systemically that their natural hair, skin tone, etc is ugly. This is fact and not meant to be offensive, but we must understand that facts are offensive.

    Personally, I went natural because I was tired of conforming and putting harsh chemicals on my head that seep into my skin, and have the potential to cause cancer and various other illnesses(read the ingredients in that stuff, and tell me how it is even legal to allow someone to put that stuff on their skin.) besides causing constant hair thinning, never ending split ends and baldness. And if you believe that those harsh chemicals do not have an effect on your brain and personality, you have another thing coming…Just as all of the other non-organic substances in our air, food, water, and everyday products alter our behaviors and health…so do the perm chemicals.

    My decision to go go natural foremost of all though was to abide by natural law, which is the law of the Creator. The Creator does not make junk or anything ugly, and he/she does everything for good reason. And if he/she made black hair like lambs wool, kinky, or curly then here must have been a significance behind it…hence it should not be altereld to please the ego of man.

    peace & blessings

  • Anonymous

    This article made me think really hard…The other day I visited my mother (a hairstylist) and I was wearing my natural hair. It was not untamed just natural. She asked me “girl what is going on with your head”. I was like nothing Im just going natural, she was like no that is not going to work, she told me to come in Tuesday for a relaxer on the house. I said no, Im content looking like me, not like everybody else. I told her I went and put in some apps, her response ” you went looking like that, I mean with your natural hair, hmph good luck”. That really struck a nerve with me. Why do I have to look like sally sue, and jonny-mae to fit in. Why can’t I be me and still be excepted, and expect to get a job? Im 23 years old, and if I can except everyone for how the are why can’t everyone else. It is so hard to feel beautiful in your own skin/hair when others around you find it unexceptable and ugly.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad to see this article. Last month my told everyone that they were changing the dress code to be more professional with a start date of July 1st. Today I walked into the office waering office attire and my natural hair up in a porfessional bun. I was quickly told by operations that I too wold have to adhere to the dress code. I looked at her and stated that I was dressed professional today. I then asked by professional do you mean that my hair needs to be relaxed. She stated yes that is exactly what I mean. So aparently if I do not have my hair relaxed by July 1st I’m not allowed to go to work.

  • Anonymous

    Are we serious? What would it be like…let’s say…um…TODAY, if people didn’t fight and just let…

    Jim Crow be?.
    Segregation be?
    Blacks can’t vote be?
    Blacks are owned be?
    Extermination of Jews be?
    *Add here*

    …and all the while…we are letting Corporate America be…and over hair…

    Are we serious???

    Thanks to all natural hair wearers in Corporate America who are standing up for yourselves, because you are paving the way for others.

    And to the women who decide to get relaxed in Corporate America…the fight is not AGAINST you. That’s not the point of this article.

    The point is…being able to wear the hair naturally in Corporate America. Basically, NOT having to be the ONLY people who have to use relaxers or even press it straight (heat is damaging to natural hair as well).

    Remember, please stop making the battle be about relaxed vs. natural, because it’s NOT. Because many times when I hear how someone is fighting to be natural somewhere (ie Corporate America)…someone relaxed comes along defending themselves. Stop that. Do YOU!!!

  • Anonymous

    Depending on the company that you work for or want to work for will affect your hairstyle. For personal joy and emotional health and balance, choose a company that reflects your inner values and outward physical preferences. For instance some companies are Black oriented, catering to black needs and lifestyle, but they reject the rap or hip-hop and/or pop way of dressing and speaking for various reasons and especially if they are trying to impress, intergrate or remain intergrated with other cultures in the community. Within black culture there is different authentic ways of living. Choose one. As an overall most blacks end up living one style and displaying another for work, school, church, and other community activities. It isn’t always right, but as long as no one is getting hurt than it is more of a personal choice. So choose your company, job, business, school, and community wisely, and be picky.

  • Anonymous

    I remember in my Catholic high school guys weren’t allowed to wear cornrows. There was even an argument. Yes, an argument with the caucasian girls as to where braids came from. The girl was actually screaming and shouting that braids did not originate in Africa. To this day, I don’t know why she was so mad about it or why she was so wrong about it.

    But at any rate, they finally allowed the guys to have cornrows. I honestly don’t understand what the big deal is. I understand the concept about trusting people who look like you – I just don’t get why people don’t realize how stupid it is.

  • Anonymous

    I’m an African American woman who has worn a short natural hairstyle aka teeny weeny Afro (TWA) for more than 20 years. I wear it out of practicalitere are few qualified ethnic hairdressers where I live and I simply can’t afford to travel to get my hair done and attempt to keep it up. It would take up 1/3 of my check to do it. Ssure, I get the occasional rude and insensitive comment, but most people have no problem with it. I say wear your hair the way you like within reason and let the chips fall where they may. If someone else doesn’t like it, that is their problem. If they carp, ask them if they’d like to pay your airfare to fly you into a big city to get your hair done or pay for wigs to conform? They’ll back off, I guarantee it LOL

  • I came upon this blog, because I’m applying for a position in the corporate world. I will be graduating from my paralegal studies soon and I asked my daughter in law to press my hair out for me. I’ve been wearing my hair natural for almost 15 years now, and I have no desire to put chemicals in it ever again. But, the reality of it all is, I know that corporate America shuns the beauty of our hair, regardless of how well maintained it is. But, once in the door, they become accustomed to it, and try not to let it bother them. Like the majority of the posts prior to mine, I chose to stop putting chemicals in my hair because I wasn’t born with straight or lightly curly hair, so why should I be ashamed of what the Creator bestowed on me as my crowning beauty? And, like the majority of the prior posts, I was initially criticized and and laughed at about going back to the 70s. You name it, I was teased about it, and gave in the first two times I had attempted to go natural. But, I refuse to allow people to brow beat me into conforming to a way of presenting myself that was against the way the Creator had originally made me. I’m putting my two cents in, because I do have to ‘press out’ my hair to impress the interviewers of my future profession. I don’t like it, but, until I get the job, I’ll chose the road less resistant to my natural beauty.

  • Anonymous

    Very informative post. Thanks for taking the time to share your view with us.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for addressing this issue. Great points. I don’t feel like I have to wear a wig to be accepted in Corporate America. If they cannot acceot change, that’s talent they lose. It has nothing to do with me. I recently went to an interview in an Afro. Didn’t get teh job obviously. 2 months later, I got a call that I was reconsidered for the position. The interview happened 2 months later. 2 weeks later, the same woman who didn’t hire me the first time did hire me. Here’s the catch: I didn’t have my Afro. I had a short Ceasar cut and 2 weeks later she offered me a job. I didn’t take it. Why? She basically told me in so many words what was accepted and what wasn’t. I will not work for someone that will not allow me to be me. My Afro was going to return in the late fall and early winter. Was she gonna fire me because I wore my Afro again? I wasn’t taking that chance. Her loss, not mine.

  • Love all the comments. I am excited to know these ladies did not alter their look to get a job or to be accepted. I am natural and have friends that are natural. When some may have an interview they want to get their hair straighten.
    I am glad I came across this site because I am a speaker and I wanted to address career development and natural hair at a Conference. There are a number of people that do not believe or want to admit your look (Black Natural Hair) will hinder your career advancement.

  • Cincinnati

    It depends. I relax my hair but hate the time consuming straightening process after I wash it, so I mostly wear my hair natural (which is thick with a frizzy curl). Most of my co-workers and peers are white and have plainly said my hair looks better when it’s natural. From informal conversation, white people assume natural hair is cleaner and washed more frequently than straight hair (with the exception of locks, which they incorrectly assume is never washed). So I don’t know if they think my hair really looks better natural, or if they prefer it natural because they assume it’s clean.

    Oddly, my black peers and co-workers are the one’s who say things like “Oh, you’re wearing the nappy look today” or “I see you’ve got the wild Afro look today.” Older black women are usually the most harsh, and will say things like “I know a good hairdresser” or “Young lady, why don’t you do something about that hair.”

    • zannadanna

      I find that the older generation(baby boomers+) of black people were not strong enough to fight the conformity and so eventually gave in. Their generation made a lot of strides for our freedom, but they were so happy to even have a job that they settled. Now that its a new day, you would think that they would be pleased that the new generation is cosigning to the natural movement. Instead many of them are the quickest to tell “massa” when you don’t look the part. All because they didn’t have the guts to stand up when it was their turn. The hardest thing for me to accept is that the enemy isn’t obvious. Its not black vs white. Its black vs black vs corporate mainstream america. We’re our own worst enemy.

  • I was just wondering, not rudely, but curiously, why the “B” in “black” was capitalised, but not the “W” in “white”. Just an observation.

  • I find it to be a problem also for Men of color as well for Women when it comes to our hair. You are looked at as strange object. As for me I dig a lady off color to wear her natural hair, I guess it what I grew up with in our house hold my mom only wore her hair as it was, and she had many styles with her natural look. So I support you ladies who choose to wear it was you are born with.

  • I work at a theme park during the summer. One of the rules of the theme park is no dreadlocks. I do not have dreadlocks but the rule seemed peculiar to me. I do not think it is fair that employees with dreadlocks have to wear wigs.

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