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‘Why Don’t You Wear Your Hair Natural?’ and Other Things NOT to Say to Blacks

By Carolynn Johnson

Carolynn Johnson, David Casey

Johnson, Casey

“You don’t seem Black,” “You speak so well” and “You just lost your Black card” are all things that, unfortunately, are said to me on a regular basis. Can you believe that these comments are made in professional settings? Believe it—and the sad fact of the matter is there’s more.

I interviewed three people for this article—two Black women who chose to remain anonymous because they did not want to risk losing their jobs for sharing their experience about feeling like outsiders at work, and David Casey, Vice President, Workforce Strategies and Chief Diversity Officer at CVS Caremark, one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies. One of the women is a 46-year-old Ph.D. who attended an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). She is married with two children. The second woman has an Ivy League education, worked at one of the world’s most prominent financial institutions, and currently works at an Ivy League school.  

What follows is a combination of things people who are not Black shouldn’t say to Blacks AND things Blacks shouldn’t say to other Blacks.

COMMENTS

1. “You are the HNIC [Head N-Word in Charge]” (Meant affectionately—usually said by one Black person to another.)

First, I don’t care who you are—do not call me the N-word. Second, it is not a term of endearment by any stretch of the imagination and does not belong in our lexicon. There is no room for reappropriation with this word. NONE.

2. “Why don’t you wear your hair natural?”  

First, please don’t think that how Black women wear their hair reflects the acceptance or rejection of their Blackness. There are other reasons: financial, medical or just personal choice. It is not always an attempt to assimilate to white standards of beauty. Psychological tests show people most trust people who look like them. If that means wearing my hair a certain way in order to continue to provide for my family, there is no contest. I will march into a pharmacy or beauty-supply store and proudly ask, “Relaxers are down which aisle?”

Dr. Ella Edmondson Bell, author of Career GPS and Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, calls this “bicultural stress.”

As a 33-year-old Black woman who is 4’10”, I would love to “go natural,” but I know I can’t. I know and accept that, before I open my mouth, the deck is already stacked against me. I cannot change my skin color, age, gender or height. In the spirit of control what you can control, I choose to relax my hair. Real change happens from the inside out. You have to fit in to get in.

3. “When I see you I don’t see a Black person, I just see a man or a professional.”

“While the comment might be innocent, I don’t mind if you see me as a Black person,” says Casey. “Just don’t make assumptions on what you think that means. That’s who I see every morning when I wake up and look in the mirror. I don’t have the option or the luxury of seeing myself differently and I’m OK with that.” Nothing more needs to be said here.

4. “Are you from [fill in inner city here]?”

All Black people are not from the hood or ghetto nearest you. I grew up in an affluent New Jersey suburb and still live in one today. Please understand the implications of asking these questions. In his popular Ask the White Guy column, DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti answers a very similar question from a reader and provides advice on how to handle situations like this.

5. “How did you get into that school—athletic scholarship, right?”

Don’t assume that because I am 6’3” and Black, I can play basketball,” explains Casey. “I didn’t go to college to play sports. I was a full-time student.”  While this question might be intended as a compliment, it can be taken as an insult. 

BEHAVIORS

1. Don’t assume I know every other Black person.

Just because we are the minority group in most corporate situations doesn’t mean we all know each other. And, while we are on that subject, stop calling Obama my President (he is our President)—and Oprah is not my hero. 

2. No fist bumping, please!

“Please do not attempt any multicultural or complex six-step handshakes––I’m fine with a traditional handshake,” says Casey. I couldn’t agree more. Quite frankly, it’s too much work and I’m not interested. Let’s try to keep it as simple as possible.

3. Black folks, can we please greet one another?

It bothers me when I enter a room in a professional setting and there is unnecessary tension. Know that I am very excited to see you and am not out to get you. This is not Highlander—there can be more than one of us; no crabs in a barrel here. Let’s at least say hello. Break the ice.

 4. Don’t assign me a certain level of Blackness or try to take my “Black card” because of the following:

  • how I speak;
  • what I do or don’t eat;
  • where I did or didn’t go to school;
  • whom I chose as my significant other;
  • what company I work for;
  • whom I voted for;
  • where I live;
  • who my friends are;
  • what type of music I like.

5. Don’t act too familiar with me just because we are both Black.

Calling each other “brotha” and “sista” is not the best way to begin a professional relationship. Please don’t speak Ebonics to me—half the time I have no idea what it means. We need to respect the fact that race does not provide an automatic green light to kinship. 

HOW TO HANDLE THESE COMMENTS AND BEHAVIORS

1. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself if the comment is coming from a place of cultural incompetence or if the person is just being mean-spirited.

2. Everyone deserves one free pass. (To be clear, this excludes comments such as Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos.”)

3. Take the opportunity to ask a few questions to try and figure out what the person is really saying.

4. Don’t have a chip on your shoulder and automatically assume that someone is trying to be offensive. Try to take an approach that isn’t all about you.

5. Take the opportunity to educate the person and help them understand why so they don’t make that mistake again.

6. View these sometimes minor infractions as an opportunity to earn trust—for all parties involved.

7. Finally, choose your battles.

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33 Comments

  • This was a smart, firm and educational way to address behaviors that can severely damage relationships & perceptions. Thank you for sharing! I deal with similar interactions and narrow perspectives as an Egyptian American all the time, especially with curly hair.

  • Susana Baumann

    As a Latino professional, I find that many of these interactions can be translated into similar comments -accent, “browness,” “where are you from?”, a green light to kinship, etc. Also, excellent pointers on how to deal with the situation. Not everybody is after you to catch you!

  • Vetta Thompson

    I appreciate this candid discussion of the microaggressions that occur in the workplace. Please add one or two others. Similar to questions about not wearing natural hair, please do not ask why or comment on my decision to wear my hair natural. Natural hair is as professional as relaxed hair when groomed. Ungroomed hair is unprofessional regardless of style. Do not comment on the name that my parents selected, it says nothing about my ability, skills or background.

  • “That’s who I see every morning when I wake up and look in the mirror. I don’t have the option or the luxury of seeing myself differently and I’m OK with that.” Nothing more needs to be said here.”

    My question then is, does luxury mean that other groups have this luxury if simply not bring black and does this statement reflect that one is not as comfortable in ones own skin or hair?

    • I was thinking the same when she used the word “luxury”. That one little word and the way she used it, reflects how she feels about being black and it is a shame. The slave mentality is alive and well in the psyche of most blacks that share a legacy of enslavement. Until you have naturally styled your hair and walked into the workplace, you don’t know if your coworkers will trust you or not, and i think that thinking is reverse racism; you assume that all whites you work with will look at your natural hair negatively because you yourself look at your natural hair negatively! I mean give them a chance, all whites are not as narrow-minded as you think. No matter how much education black people receive, the slave mentality will still exist deep in our psyches unless we aggressively pursue it and expunge it. From what I see in this article, the only thing education does in regards to the slave mentality, is allow the educated to use a more complex lexicon in order to hide and justify it. Very sad. (for those that don’t know what the slave mentality is, just check out Sheryl Underwood, and countless others).

      I actively seek out and destroy these thoughts when they enter my head using questioning; I have been doing that for 20 years, and i can tell a difference in the way I see the world now. I ask myself, “why did I just think that? or why did i assume that this person has a low moral and educational level because their hair is nappy?”

      If you question yourself deeply and stay honest with yourself, you can eradicate that mentality that was passed down for generations.

  • “As a 33-year-old Black woman who is 4’10”, I would love to “go natural,” but I know I can’t. I know and accept that, before I open my mouth, the deck is already stacked against me. I cannot change my skin color, age, gender or height. In the spirit of control what you can control, I choose to relax my hair. Real change happens from the inside out. You have to fit in to get in.”

    I wear my hair natural because a) I absolutely love it, b) using relaxers is strongly linked to fibroids in black women and having had 4 removed already I decided trying ‘to fit in’ was not worth my health, and c) it is the hair that God blessed me with and grows from my follicles in its curly, coily glory just as it was intended and it is beautiful. The assumption in your comment is that natural hair is somehow unprofessional. Au contraire, my hair is always neat, clean and well kept. Relaxed hair does not make it ‘professional’. My question is this: if people can’t accept you because of your skin color, age, gender, or height which can’t be changed, what on earth makes you think they will accept you if you change your hair? I have found that the primary people who take ‘issue’ with black women who wear thei hair natural are (drumroll please) …other black women and men!

    You are entitled to your opinion, as I am to mine. As for me, I will never go back to using the ‘creamy crack’. Aside the the hair point, I agree with the author.

    • I am SO glad you wrote your reply, as I could not agree more and could not have said it better myself.

      • Well stated, wear your hair as you wish and for yourself only. No other reason is worthwhile. All people should be proud of their heritage and the traits that accompany it.

    • I am so happy that you left your comment!

      I would like to add that just because an African-American woman does not have an afro or braids/twists/locks it does not mean that her hair isn’t “natural”. I am a dark-skinned African-American woman and have not relaxed my hair in over fifteen years so in my opinion my hair is natural. My decision to stop relaxing my hair was because of the damage caused by harsh chemicals and had nothing to do with defining my cultural identity. Because I choose to blow dry it straight and wear it down or in a bun sadly other African-American females do not believe me when i say that I do not use relaxers (but that’s another topic!).

    • I just saw this article but I agree with you whole-heartedly Tonya.

      Also, don’t ask me “What did you DO to your hair?” The same thing you DO with your hair.
      That’s just a rude question.

    • Pt No. 2 is disappointing on so many levels.

      I’ve watched my wife “go natural” early in her career, and since then “climb” to a position of leadership and influence within a conservative fortune 100 company. She is respectful of her colleagues, and receives the same treatment in return. By the way, her employer is based in Kentucky. Albeit an isolated observation, it can not be discounted.

      The notion that a woman has to relax her hair in order to provide for her family is ludicrous. Truth be told, kinks are beautiful because of the mind of their own freedom they display. Tight curls that hug the scalp closely on Tuesday, may decide to “relax” in their own way to stand tall on Friday. Combined with the appropriate attire, maturity and GSD approach to work, African American woman can enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding career – while encouraging people to embrace the beauty of the world’s multicultural mosaic.

  • Austin H. Triplett

    Generally, this was an adequate, but somewhat surface limited article and some references to studies should be followed with a footnote or something. Nevertheless, I have a question based on a source of confusion and a lack of elaboration or reference.
    When I read:
    “First, please don’t think that how Black women wear their hair reflects the acceptance or rejection of their Blackness. There are other reasons: financial, medical or just personal choice.”
    I was confused.

    Other than personal choice, what are the financial and medical reasons for not wearing your hair in a natural fashion? I could not think of any.

    • Austin: It is both expensive and toxic to maintain synthetic/conventional/artificially staightened hair. Poor women have trouble affording the services of a reputable hairstylist and the supplies they prefer to use. Women have also been harmed through the use of such products as relaxers and other straightening agents. Weaves and other synthetic hair are often affixed to the scalp through sewing, pulling, gluing, and other manner of barbarism in the name of Euro-centric beauty aspirations. it’s a sad state of affairs, but the damage done is all in the name of assimilation, even by the author’s own admission.

    • D. Anderson

      Austin, there are no medical or financial consequences associated with wearing one’s hair natural. This issues come into play when natural is either straightened or weaved for some other process that makes it straight. Harsh chemicals and often synthetic hair and glue is used and many women have negative reactions to it.

    • That’s because there are no financial and medical reasons for not wearing your hair as it naturally grows from your scalp. On the contrary, using toxic hair straightening chemicals is unhealthy. Constant use of intense heat and other processes to straighten hair is also dangerous. As a young child of 4 or 5 I can remember getting my hair ‘hot combed’ using a steel comb placed on open fire of a stovetop. I have the scars on my ears, neck and forehead to prove the brutality of forced hair straightening in the name of ‘beauty’. And let’s not even get into the financial expense of weekly or biweekly or monthly trips to the beauty parlor to get the hair straightened (chemically or otherwise). A relaxer costs upwards of $80 a pop. Throw in a conditioner, trim or cut and you’re talking well over $100. This addiction to straightening natural black hair is an attempt to assimilate to Eurocentric standards of beauty, period. Many black people are taught from birth that our natural hair is not ‘good’ unless it is straight. Some children as young as two are having their hair straightened with chemicals! I had my first relaxer at 6 or 7, so I didn’t know what my natural hair looked like until I was in my 20s. Sadly, many black women never will. I was the first and (until recently the) only woman in my family to wear my hair natural. Now, at 47, I’m proud to have inspired my 27 and 8 yo nieces and a 15 yo cousin to wear their hair natural. Their moms on the hand have professed that the will straighten their hair until the day they die.

  • Jarrito Fresa

    What’s not mentioned here is the reverse question. I am a professional black woman and I wear my hair in a natural style. I think because I believe myself to be professional no matter what I’m wearing or what my hair looks like, I am professional. I expect to be treated as a professional and so I am treated as a professional. I haven’t had this “professional deportment” insecurity since my 20s.

    The comments I have received, from other professionals of color, are along the lines of you speak so well, or you’re so sharp, why don’t you straighten your hair and polish your image? It’s an odd comment to get when it comes up because I don’t doubt my professionalism, nor is my professionalism questioned in any other way, and the implication is that if I straightened my hair I would seem more professional than by anything I accomplish in my work. My only response to this is, is it more important to seem professional or to be professional?

  • Steps in a common journey–links in a tempered chain.
    I often wonder how far we’ve come along and how much further there is go until we human animals act and really know that we are all kinfolk with so much more in common that unites us than signifcant differences that divide us. As noted naturalist, Richard Dawkins rightly observed, “We’re all Africans!” Our species was founded there. Centuries of racism and xenophobia have obscurred but not obliterated that biological and genetic fact. Freethinking folks should ever bear in mind our place of origin and move gently and firmly toward re-estabishing the relatedness, not only of all humans, but of human animals to all of kindrid spirits and creatures.

  • We sound very weak & confused here. No person validates another, our culture runs resilient + deep. Our hair & skin is gods gift as all people are blessed with their attributes. To the 4’10 woman, you are only as royal as YOU allow yourself to be, & I hope that you realize not only are you poisoning yourself you are abusing your spirit by feeling inadequate in your natural born state.

  • D. Anderson

    I think that when people learn to accept that we are different, rather than hold us all to one standard of beauty and acceptance, then and only then, can change take place. Because I don’t look like one person, that doesn’t mean that my beauty is less than. We all relate to what’s familiar, but the reallity is that everyone cannot be classified as “familiar”. They CAN be classified as people who are different in some ways from myself”. Different should not mean something negative.

  • “It is not always an attempt to assimilate to white standards of beauty. Psychological tests show people most trust people who look like them.”

    This sounds like an attempt to assimilate to me. Even with relaxed hair, you don’t look like them.

  • what did her height have to do with her choice of straightening her hair? OK article but it appears not broad enough of a pool of individuals when putting it together. as much as i want to like this article, don’t like parts of it at all.

    • Being a short woman makes it hard to be taken seriously. I constantly have to look up at my colleagues. In one instance, I was in a discussion with 4 men,all of whom were 6’3″ and taller. I finally asked if they would please sit down as it was hurting my neck. They chuckled but complied.

  • I believe the way you dress and groom yourself is an entirely personal choice and not necessarily based on social pressures or racial expectations. I have straightened my naturally curly hair since I was 13 simply because I prefer it; if we have to go into further details then may I explain that my hair is more manageable when straightened and, simply, I like it. In my 20+ years in top management positions in multinationals no one has ever referred to my appearance and although I don’t doubt these things have happened elsewhere, everyone has a right to dress and wear their hair as they see fit. It’s not always a statement or position. If you like it, can afford it and have no medical issues related to how you choose to straighten your hair (per my reading, most claims about the harmful side effects of hair relaxers or keratin treatments are on the side of the hair professional and not the person receiving the treatment), go for it. In my humble and honest opinion, I don’t do it to conform to anyone or anything, and I don’t think anyone I know has this agenda on mind when they go do their hair. It’s a personal preference, as valid as any other form of individualism including not straightening your hair.

  • A white woman called me “Miss Thang” and then on another day–”Girlfriend.” As I do not express myself in these colloquialisms, or at least not anyone, except family, this arbitrary cultural assignment is hard for me to not believe, that is nothing more than an attempt to categorize me in
    a derogatory way under the guise of “camaraderie”. I am also bored with the word “ignorance”-and passive aggressive. Sometimes, insult and racism -is exactly that–even if it is wearing pink lipstick with a smile.

  • I just wanted to add that the usage of brotha’ has it’s origins in the 1960′s (mostly), and was used in an era when blacks faced a great deal of oppression in this country. Brotha’ and sistah were terms that, within the black communities, were used to convey the belief that we (black people) are in this together. It meant we had to band together so we would be stronger as a collective than if we were separated as individuals. Although today I believe many young people use the term with less direct linkage to the original meaning/reason, there are still many, like me, who use it with the original intent.

  • Lorettadbr

    I have 2 comments –

    1. Regarding the how or why someone would state, ‘ You speak so well,’ it appeared even more ignorant when it was stated to my 14 year old daughter while she was visiting my office in Washington State by my then Black male manager. Crazy.

    2 I am not sure how old this article is, but reading it caused me to Google Dr. Bell of Dartmouth after reading ‘As a 33-year-old Black woman who is 4’10”, I would love to “go natural,” but I know I can’t. I know and accept that, before I open my mouth, the deck is already stacked against me…
    So who is this – http://www.tuck.dartmouth.edu/faculty/faculty-directory/ella-lj-edmondson-bell Her hair looks quite natural to me. Did I read this incorrectly?

    Lastly, the comment, fit in to get in – after you’ve gotten in must you still not be yourself?

  • I love my wavy hair. But, when I straighten it, it is more manageable and smoother. On a windy day I don’t have to worry about a wavy mass of hair, straightened hair will blow in the wind and then fall back into place.

    • Lorettadbr

      This is your choice. You don’t have to defend it which is the entire thought here. At least that is what I am getting from this discussion.

      I am neither pro natural or pro weave or pro chemical – I am pro choice!

  • My late father, my sister and I look Ethiopian. I really don’t know if my ancestors were or not but it really amazes me when people from other continents ask me what country I come from. I just know I was born and raised in the Midwest.

    They then proceed to tell me that I probably have relatives that are either Somalian or Ethiopian. Ummm okay, if you insist.

  • Lydia Sadler

    Wow. Some of the comments here were truly insightful and some were…well let’s just say huh? I wear my hair in braids because I hate doing my hair. I also relax it when I feel like it. And sometimes I throw on a hat. I am doing me. Anyone that thinks appearances don’t matter has been living under a rock. I think a well groomed person who acts professionally should not have to explain themselves. Suffice to say there are plently of ignorant people of every color and ethnicity and we need to STOP doing comparisons. Diversity is what I embrace and when I hear these type of comments, I realize that it is the OTHER person with the issue, not me. I had a old white woman say to me, “You are very articulate for a Black person”. I saw this as an opportunty to enlighten her and replied, “Yes, my mother raised all six of us to be readers, so we are all naturally well spoken”.

  • I agree totally….it’s pro-CHOICE!

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