By Anita C. Ricketts
Vice President, Consulting
When I was an undergraduate at Stanford University and decided to “go natural” with my hair, it was more of a lifestyle and financial choice. But in returning to my corporate internship the following summer, I quickly realized it was also a career issue when my (white, male) supervisor told me my hair was “too short and militant” for the company culture. He meant well, knew that I hoped to work for the company after graduation and sincerely wanted to help me succeed in my career. He really was a great guy and he did help me, in truth. I kept my hair natural and decided that maybe that company wasn’t the right place for me after all. I took a position with a competitor company after graduation.
As a de facto member of “Black Twitter,” I have seen firsthand that the discussion about career issues related to “going natural” still rages on. One of the first questions, beyond how to care for natural Black hair, is how will it impact my career? Will my employer accept the change? Will I be able to get a job? Will this change prevent me from getting promotions? Earlier this year, a Huffington Post article on this topic drew many comments and debate. These are real questions that are posed by Black women who are considering the “transition” to natural hair.
For some, wearing our hair natural is an affirmation and presentation of our authentic selves. To have to question whether or not doing so will slow or halt hard-won career progress is really about questioning the inclusiveness of our work environments. Even more fundamentally, it is really questioning the success of our corporate diversity-management programs. So ask yourselves: Would a Black woman feel comfortable wearing her neatly styled and groomed natural hair at my company? Would she get opportunities that could lead to promotions as easily? Would she be mentored as well in a cross-cultural mentoring relationship? Would she be able to secure sponsors as effectively? If the answers to these questions are “I don’t know” or, even more problematic, “probably not” … well, there is more work to be done.
I am at a point in my 20-plus-year career when I can honestly say to a potential employer: “If you can’t handle my hair, then maybe I don’t need to work here.” Yes, acceptance of my hair is one of several litmus tests for whether or not I will choose your company over another. If the natural-hair-wearing women on “Black Twitter” are any indication, there are more like me coming. If you don’t believe me, just Ask the White Guy.