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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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130 Comments

  • I’ve been natural for the past 5 years and feel FREE. I will never again process my hair for anyone, white or black or otherwise, if they don’t like it, they can stick it.

  • NO!!

    African-American women…. DO NOT relax your hair! Unless it is for deep, personal reason. Screw whatever desires some stupid employer has. Be who you are at all times.

    I’m a product of the 60s, and I still have images of Angela Davis and her gorgeous, giant afro, burned into my mind.

    Nothing is more beautiful than a woman that accepts her body as God intended it. Treat your bodies as the temples they are, eat healthy, be righteous. But to change something like curly-hair, because some filthy capitalist likes it better…. well, that’s just accepting [their] messed up views, that you are inferior, in some way.

    Blow-off the Barbie-look. Curls rock.

  • I believe that White America has come a long way in putting aside their corporate prejudices and has become more accepting of the diversity in Black hairstyles.

  • after reading your post i would say this is all about racim, which is very sadly that people still judge others from these criterias and not from their efforts or knowledge in work

  • This is a tough question. It’s a sad fact that in certain industries, yes, it may be necessary. However, it depends on the place you’re employed at and a lot of other factors. In my opinion, if you have to relax your hair, then you shouldn’t be working where you’re at.

  • Anonymous

    I love my natural hair, but I know that moving up the corporate ladder is out of the question. I wore my hair braided in the front and loose in the back to work one day. It was really not an unprofessional style. But you would have thought that I was a leper or had some kind of contagious disease. My white coworkers stayed away from me. They didn’t come near me unless it was absolutely necessary. The next week when I wore my hair natural, but pulled back, I was told my hair looks “so much better”. I told them I preferred the style I had the previous week. Silence….. As I said in the beginning, I love my natural hair! Whether you relax your hair or go natural all depends on whether you are willing to compromise your free spirit. What is more important to you….trying to fit in or being accepting of the way God made you? God made me like this on purpose and I am more than satisfied with me being natural and free! My life does not depend on climbing the corporate ladder. Besides, when you get up there, you females are going to hit that “glass ceiling”. Then what?

    • Matagofie

      Reading this did make me laugh not because it was funny but because of the ridiculousness of it all. I just don’t understand why certain parts, at least, of our culture can’t be displayed and expressed at work. I dare not even wear my hair in cornrows at work because I think they may all think I have a gun under my shirt. I just don’t get it. They tell me at work to be myself and stop being so serious but that is the only emotion that I feel would be “professional” to them because when I laugh they think I’m crazy, when I smile they think I have an ulterior motive, and when I do express my opinions I’m getting agitated and it makes them uncomfortable.

  • Also, don’t forget Rachel True(from “The Craft”, “Half Baked,” and “Half & Half”), Corinne Bailey Rae(wonderful singer and gorgeous young lady), and Mel B(Scary Spice!) ^_^

    Even then, there are sex symbols or beauty ideals from all ethnicities who are KNOWN for curly hair! Shakira, Minnie Driver, Taylor Swift, Sarah Jessica Parker, Joss Stone, Esperanza Spalding, Lenny Kravitz, Rita Ora, Slash, and countless others, are usually envisioned and iconically depicted with coils intact. Even THE original bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, was a curly girl!

  • nice – Thank you for your post. i am glad this issue has been brought up for discussion.

  • I totally agree. I am native american and black. My skin is real light. I started wearing extensions in 1979 which transformed my look. It was long straight. Hair combined with my skin color I could pass for any race until I start to talk. Southern as all getout. But my looking like soneone other than black got many doors open for me. I worked for fortune 100 law firms. Now I’m wearing my hair locked at 63. Its hanging down my back and I’m so proud. I wish I had done it years ago.

  • Matagofie

    This does affect men as well. I’m a male that is black and Samoan (though at work they consider me black.) Anyway, my hair is long and naturally curly. It’s not coarse or thin, but be very soft and thick. I have had issues with this particular job that I’ve been at for 4 months (I’m trying to make it to a year.) Everyone is white and very much southern. I have had the “is that your hair” comments and even questions in the interview about “would I be willing to cut my hair” and quite frankly it still gets to me. I wear my hair either in a tight pony tail or at the base of my neck bundled and when I do wash it (those days I dread) I wear it down because I let it air dry. One of my coworkers asked me one day when I had it all down if it took long to put “the extensions from the store in.” I looked at him aghast at the ignorance of that question because he saw my hair was still long even in a pony tail. I try to be professional and avoid them even noticing my hair and I do have an attitude and temper but don’t want to “scare” them if I come out of nowhere and say what I actually want to say. Despite that, my hair is breaking a lot more because I keep it tied up more than I usually do. Yesterday took the cake, and though I know white people strive for affinity and a common trait between us but I was just flabbergasted at the things they say. I was sitting in my office and one of my coworkers brought in a book with Jimmy Hendrix on the cover in a big afro and says “I didnt know you were on a book cover.” Now any person in their right mind would know that I do not look anything like Mr. Hendrix (way more attractive :0) and my hair was nothing like him nor or we even the same age but she took it upon herself to make a joke that made me grimace and clench my fists under my desks so I didn’t throw the book at her. I need to find a positive way to vent and let them know ” I’m not like all black people.” What irritates me is that I will tell them something about me and then they just forget about it and throw out a generalization. I made a comment about going on vacation to New Orleans and they asked me if my family survived Katrina. I tell them that I only like fish and turkey and they tell me I forgot to mention fried chicken. I tell them that I’m working on my second degree and they ask me if I went to a community college. I just really feel like they are trying to break my spirit and being I have no one here to relate to it makes it worse. I don’t know how much longer I can stomach this.

    • Hang in there Matagofie. I feel for you. I love in an area that is not very diversely populated. Sometimes I feel it too.

  • Mr. Ask the white guy,
    Riddle me this. Do you think the same rules apply to black men as much as black women? As television and entertainment has repeatedly shown us it is easier for a black man to make it in any industry than a black woman. Anytime interracial couples were shown, it was a black man with a White, Asian, or Hispanic woman. If she is black, then the more culturally ambiguous, the better. Until that same decisive majority of the white population can envision EXTREMELY powerful white men marrying natural dark complexion women, the ideals will still be one-sided and the hope for change becomes moot.

    • Luke Visconti

      Our data show that sexism is still more of an issue than racism in corporate America. I agree with your conclusion. That said, we’re making progress, and Michelle Obama has proven to be very effective as First Lady—as evidenced by the amount of hate directed at her by the bigot brigade. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I am a white woman and think there is nothing wrong with a black woman’s natural hair. What I don’t understand is why wear hair of a different race? This blows my mind. I mean the weaves that black women wear are not even similar to their natural hair. At some point and time the fad of weaves will run their course and there will be a revival of black women being proud of their hair instead of covering it up with someone else’s hair. Dont confrom, transform. you are beautiful the way you are.

  • None of this should come as a surprise because it’s been happening since the beginning of time or at least this country’s existence. The media is just an example of what happens everyday. How many dark skinned blacks, especially women do you see on tv? The paper bag test is alive and well in corporate America. Yeah they can’t openly discriminate so they try to find someone who “fits” their image so they can say they hire or promote African Americans. You see this in any highly visible positions where they don’t want anyone with “African” features representing their company. I braid my hair and won’t change for anyone and my cousins have had natural styles one working for a law firm and the other for a financial firm. There is so much pressure to give in to the company’s wishes but I will quit before doing that because it is my right to look like myself and not some eurocentric imposed image that makes them feel more comfortable. Look at my job performance NOT my hair or features!

  • NonWhiteHispanicPR

    I did not have the opportunity to read all comments and this sub-topic might have been brought up. In reference to Hispanics of Black race; I can only attest to my country and culture (PR). During the life style of the 60s and 70s almost everyone fashioned big afros (men and women) but women in particular have relaxed their hair since torching the bell bottoms. Not only professional women but about 90% of black Puerto Rican women and/or women with black hair in general relax and/or blow dry it to make it appear “straight”. Others use extensions, wigs, etc. It is a social and cultural trend as women have often, mistakenly, been perceived as “less beautiful” or “not esthetically groomed” when wearing that type of natural hair. Men and Women seem to have adopted this perception, unfortunately it has become sort of a social rule. Racism? Yes, blacks have been oppressed in my country and this is a perfect example of how they must try to “improve” their esthetics to be alike the dominant race. I experienced it myself being called a “charcoal – equivalent of the N-word” many times. Blacks may not be able to lighten their skin but have been provided with products to “modify” their natural look in order to achieve a specific look. Should black people relax their hair in order to advance career wise? In my humble opinion is no but it is a matter of choice. I have read other articles in this site in where a person opted for plastic surgery in order to advance; I disagree that people should yield to such pressures but ultimately it is their choice. If a black person chooses to do so it should be because it is their preference not because they are expected to alter their look in order to be accepted. I look at my mother’s pictures with and without her afro and she looks equally beautiful.

  • It would really please me, when African people stop asking questions, about appealing more to white people. Are Black people ever going to free themselves from the influence of white people to the point where they make decisions for themselves and not worry about what white people are going to think? I heard a conscious African sister talk about how Black people are running out of Africa, but white folk are running in. Africa is the richest Continent on the earth, but her children are disorganized and scattered throughout the face of the earth, in rags and abject poverty. The questions should be how do we establish Black Corporations and how do we sustain those corporations, not how do we satisfy white sensibilities.

    • zannadanna

      I couldn’t agree more! I don’t know why we as black people feel we need the support of whites to be successful. We’ve been in this country for over 500 years. When will we learn that this country was not built FOR us, but BY us.

  • At the instant, ask for natural hair care products! These products help keep both mother and baby safe. Natural hair products avoid harsh elements, gradually nourishing your hair to its healthiest state.

  • I decided to go natural two years ago and I LOVE my natural hair. The only reservations I had about going natural was 1) I was never taught how to effectively take care of my big, kinky curly hair and 2) What hairstyle I was going to wear. Thanks to natural hair blogs and doing extensive research on how to take care of black hair, I put together a hair regimen that works for my hair. It never crossed my mind what others would think about my hair. Actually, I could not have cared less what people thought of my hair. In fact, I wear a precision cut huge 70’s afro and will wear it anywhere, except to work. I used to live in a small conservative city where the blacks made up two percent of the population. I had a relaxer when I lived there. One day, I went to my old neighborhood to do some shopping and it did cross my mind how white people would react to my afro. To my surprise the conservative white people from my old neighborhood LOVED it! White women were tripping over themselves to talk to me about my hair. I couldn’t believe the reaction I got. I felt like a rock star! Now could I wear an afro to work?? Nope, but I can create another hairstyle that is appropriate for the work. I will never put a relaxer in my hair again.

  • Tracy Ellis Ross is biracial and looks it; she looks like this middle spectrum of both her parents, as does Maya Rudolph, Alana Davis, Barack Obama, Jennifer Beals, etc. Biracial isn’t this absolute, all Black or all White defining category. There is this middle grey area, and all the above folks clearly fit into it. I find it funny how loosely people define what Black or what White is, and yet folks only allow this teeny tiny margin for what Mixed or Biracial is to look like.

    Other than North Africans, I have never seen Black Americans (descended from Sub-Saharan African slaves) with hair like Tracy’s unless they were mixed, not necessarily biracial, but mixed.

    If you want to say that Black American women can have hair like Tracy’s, then you might as well say the same of White women too. I have seen many Jewish and Slavic women who have hair curlier than even Tracy’s hair. Women of all ethnic backgrounds can have hair like Tracy’s, but to truly know why, there would have to be some DNA study to help illustrate the cause of that particular hair type…but when looking at Black America, I seriously doubt that women identifying as “Black” got hair like Tracy’s without some sort of mixture.

    The United States is not the only nation with issues on textured/kinky hair. The Dominican Republic is notorious for having issues with natural hair like this. And I met a woman from Cameroon who says her friends and family look down upon kinky short natural hair, which is why she wears a weave.

    And lastly, America has such a narrow mind about Blackness and being Biracial. In the United Kingdom, you have like 4 options for what type of Black you are, and another 4 options for what type of Black/White mix you are. It’s definitely food-for-thought, as being mixed Black and something else is ever increasing, and yet, people are fighting for their lives to either claim mixed people as Black or to only let them be White.

  • I love my hair,and I really see no problem with our natural hair,I think they might be jealous because we get to wear our hair in all sorts of fashionable braids,afros, mohawks,etc.Most of them whites do a ponytail, bun,french braid or leave it straight .Why have straight kinky “fake” long hair full of chemicals instead of long luscious curly big fro hair?

  • MY OPINION: I am addressing this to young folk, on their way to the world of work. Step up your game. You need to choose a major in college such that your contribution to any employer will be critical to their bottom line. You need to be highly productive and on the cutting edge of your field. You need to on your way to being the authority in your field such that a group of people will remember what you say but can’t agree amongst themselves as to what you were wearing.

    If your skill as a subject matter expert, project manager, team leader,or decision maker doesn’t set you apart, you’re in the wrong job, wrong field, and/or wrong enterprise. As long as your clothes and hair style aren’t a distraction or safety hazard to other folk they should never come up in office conversation.

    Assuming you already work at a firm, if clothing and hairstyles suddenly enter the dialogue, it’s time (for somebody) to go. Someone is having control issues and they are trying to re-assert their presumed authority over you.

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