Picture day at work can be an exciting time. Not only are you becoming an official part of the team, but for me, the thought of updating my Linkedin profile is even more exciting!
As exciting as this is, picture day can also invoke a lot of unnecessary anxiety for me. Not because I am camera shy – I love the camera, just check my Instagram – but because while I think my natural hair is awesome, there are others who still think that it is, different. Never mind that I have a stellar work ethic and that I contribute to student success daily at the #1 public university in the world. All those things do not matter because people see my natural hair and think it is “unprofessional” before they see ME. My hair becomes a reflection of my professional persona and because they deem my hair to be unprofessional, they assume I must be as well. Why is that?
The anxiety I experience does not only come up during picture day, it comes up as I am preparing for interviews. I generally love interviewing and feel quite confident that when I am in an interview, I am absolutely flourishing! My anxiety manifests itself as I am trying to figure out how to professionally style my hair. Forget the fact that women worry about what to wear – I am in the group of Black women and girls who have been told that unless your hair is straight, it is not professional and thus undesirable. Hence, a large portion of my interview prep consists of me staring in a mirror trying to style my hair in the least distracting way so that my interviewer doesn’t have a chance to focus on the stereotypical images of Black people they may harbor. This is what renowned social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele calls stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to “a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group”. This directly correlates to the feeling of constantly wondering if and what stories are being projected onto me simply because of my locs by those interviewing me – something I highly doubt my non Black colleagues have to worry about.
Who determines professionalism? What ideals are informing notions of professionalism that essentially tell Black women, like myself, that because we choose to embrace our authentic selves, we are suddenly not “professional”? Naturally I did what every millennial does when we have a question; I Googled unprofessional hair for work and was not surprised by the mostly Black faces the populated my screen. I invite you all to do the same if you haven’t already. Essentially my search affirmed the discomfort and anxiety I felt leading up to my big photo shoot – Black women, particularly those who have natural hair, do not fit into this idea of professionalism. So does this mean our hair is good enough to warrant stares – or worse, petting – but not good enough for the office?
A Call to Action: Creating inclusive work spaces
For many companies who are attempting to address ongoing concerns of inclusion, it is crucial to unpack the term professionalism and how people of color and gender nonconforming people fit into that paradigm. This DOES NOT mean you are lowering your standards, nor does it mean that you should not continue to ask and expect your employees to conduct themselves in appropriate behavior and adhere to standards like dress codes. It DOES mean that within those expectations, you are leaving room for people like myself to feel like we can show up wearing our natural hair and not be judged or assumed less competent because of it.
Inclusion is no doubt a buzzword these days, but it is my hope that this piece offers critical and concrete experiences to consider, which can and should inform efforts towards making workplaces more inclusive. People do their best work when they are allowed to be their authentic selves; companies must be committed to creating work cultures that encourages this.
So, the next time someone comes into your office with their natural threads, rather than stare blankly, provide a compliment or say nothing at all and continue to work. That is ok!
As for my professional headshot, I finally gathered the courage to rock my natural threads and prove that, contrary to popular belief, you can be an incredible educator, doctor, lawyer, or engineer, and rock natural hair!