Should Black Women Straighten Their Hair or Lighten Their Skin?

Backlash against R&B singer India.Arie's new cover art re-raises controversial #skinversation on racism/colorism in Black community, including the discussion on Black hair.

Do Black women need to adjust their appearance—such as straighten their hair or lighten their skin—to be successful in corporate America? And are those women who attempt to look "less Black" selling out?


Racism & Colorism in the Black Community

The University of Pennsylvania held a "hair-itage" symposium on the challenging politics of Black hair, led by Associate Professor of Religious Studies Anthea Butler, to demystify the versatility of Black hair and encourage Black women to embrace the beauty of their natural Blackness and appearance.

The issue of whether mostly white corporate America allows Black women—and others from underrepresented groups—to be their "whole selves" while succeeding is relevant to the recent debate over R&B singer India.Arie, who is defending the cover art for her new single, "Cocoa Butter."

While various news outlets say that the singer's drastically lightened skin color—and rumors of skin bleaching—are "absolutely ridiculous" and simply an effect of intense lighting, Twitter users were quick to slam Arie for her creative choice to not color-correct the photo.

"It's not the lights, even if it's make up! Why India Arie!? This isn't You! Please tweet her and ask her why..." said hip-hop artist Rhymefest.

Arie has been a vocal advocate for Black beauty with songs like "I Am Not My Hair" and "Brown Skin" and also spoke out regarding the controversial casting of Zoe Saldana, a biracial actress, as the lead in the upcoming Nina Simone biopic, which many in the Black community consider "whitewashing."

Watch this Huffington Post Panel discuss "The Color Complex."

Corporate America: Racism, Biases Toward Black Hair & Skin Color

The larger issue—rather, #skinversation, as Arie calls it—is racism and colorism in the Black community, which ultimately carries over into the workplace.

In his popular Ask the White Guy column "Do Blacks Need to Relax Their Natural Hair to Get Promoted?" DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti writes:

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).

Visconti also notes that these types of biases and stereotypes, if left unchecked, can negatively affect your business by reducing a company's competitive advantage, ability to recruit/retain top talent and its potential for innovation. Allowing employees to bring their whole selves to work (whether that means your appearance, your orientation or your background), and not fear that they will be judged by stereotypes and biases, is key to driving an inclusive corporate culture.

How do you get that? It starts at the top with clearly stated values of inclusion from the CEO and senior executives and is supported by cultural-competence education, which occurs through having active resource groups spreading the word, role models from underrepresented groups in your succession plan, and formal, cross-cultural mentoring relationships that teach high-potentials how to succeed in corporate environments without sacrificing their identities.

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