Natural hair in corporate America: An ongoing conversation

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“I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am not your expectations.”

India Arie’s lyrics describe how some Black people may feel in their work environment.

The battle of Black natural hairstyles versus corporate America has been an ongoing topic. Black men and women continue to be critiqued and criticized for wearing their natural hairstyles in the work setting.

For Black people who prefer to wear their natural hairstyles in a work environment, their choice of hairstyle may play a pivotal role while searching for jobs, or sometimes in keeping their current positions.

Extreme measures such as not hiring a potential employee to firing an employee, solely based on their natural hairstyle, are just a few obstacles Black people face in their work environment.

Corporate America’s perspective on professionalism does not often include the puffy afro or twisted locs. The urge to conform to the image of straight hair or tamed curls is frequently discussed in the “havens” of the Black community — beauty salons and barbershops.

The conversation about how to “fit in” as a person of color in a white-dominated work environment has been held for decades.

“Good hair means curls and waves, Bad hair means you look like a slave.”

In 2001, Hampton University’s School of Business banned students from wearing dreadlocks or cornrows in their program, on behalf of the college’s past dean, Sid Credle. This ban is still in effect.

According to the Huffington Post, “Hampton University’s Cornrows And Dreadlock Ban: Is It Right?” by Julee Wilson, Credle believed that those hairstyles would prevent students from being prime candidates in securing a job.

“All we’re trying to do is make sure our students get into the job,” Credle told ABC TV. “What they do after that, that’s you know, their business.”

Although the ban only extended to students in the school’s five-year MBA program, there was heavy opposition to this decision from the university’s students.

Eleven years later, in 2012, this controversial ban still caused room for discussion on whether its regulations truly helped students land jobs in the corporate world.

According to Carrieheals’ “Hampton University Business School dean stands by ban on dreadlocks, cornrows,” Hampton spokeswoman Naima Ford commented that the school was doing its best to model their students for the future.

“We model these students after the top African-Americans in the business world,” said Ford.

Differing from its historical black university counterpart, Florida A&M’s School of Business and Industry makes sure to teach its students on how to look presentable in all aspects — dreadlocks and all.

SBI Dean Shawnta Friday-Stroud is aware of the weight natural black hairstyles hold in a business setting and understands that students who carry themselves with professionalism can successfully land jobs whether they sport dreadlocks or not.

“I have seen where there were guys who had long dreads. One I recalled, he had his very nicely rolled, pulled back — into big rolls pulled back. He got a job with a major Fortune 500 company, no problem, straight out,” Friday-Stroud said.

“But I think it was that he carried himself and presented himself as a total package. While his hair was a part of who he was, he brought that with him, but he brought it in a way that it was not distracting or perceived as being offensive,” she added.

Friday-Stroud said that students in the SBI program are taught how to make sure their hair is presentable to wear in a business setting, regardless of the style.

“We teach our students to wear them [hairstyles] presentable where they’re neat,” Friday-Stroud said. “We can’t tell them you can’t wear dreadlocks. But try to make sure they’re neat and well-groomed.”

FAMU’s SBI program exposes the reality of wearing your natural hair so students are informed on what to expect when job hunting.

“We’re [SBI] not going to put a ban on it [natural hairstyles], but we’re going to say if you’re going to do it, this is how we suggest you do it and we also need to prepare you that you need to be prepared that it could impact your ability to get a job,” Friday-Stroud said. “If you’re willing to take that risk then it’s your prerogative. But we have provided you with the best counsel we give you.”

“Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?”

Going into the business world with the same qualifications while rocking her natural hair, business administration junior Imani Wilson has learned how to make herself marketable and presentable to businesses while studying at SBI.

“Coming in, we have general business courses. As a part of your GEB (the abbreviations) syllabus, every semester is a section in there on the SBI guidelines and dress codes, particularly pertaining to forum, but just in a professional setting in general,” said Wilson.

Unlike her SBI peers, Wilson likes to dye her hair often. She’s tried purple, blue, brown and is currently sporting a short cut style dyed honey blond. Wilson plans to continue to dye her hair even after she graduates and goes into her field.

“A part of the brand that I want to make for myself is individuality, the lack of fear of being unique. I want everyone to not be afraid to express themselves, and be themselves, and carry themselves however they want to,” said Wilson.

After graduation, Wilson plans on becoming an entrepreneur. While she studies to become one, she is interested in letting her hair grow out in hopes of locking them into a dread style.

“A lot of the alumni that come back and talk to us say that they had to wait it out and feel out the company culture and the work environment before they felt comfortable enough to be themselves and dye their hair or dreadlock their hair,” said Wilson.

Wilson anticipates dyeing her locks when her hair grows out.

“By the time graduation rolls around and I’m looking to start my own entrepreneurial endeavors, I want my credentials, experience, and brand to speak for itself so that it won’t matter what color my hair is or what my dreads look like because that’s already a part of my brand,” Wilson said.

“Ninety-seven dreadlocks all gone.”

For 13 years, Lauren Carter wore dreads that cascaded down her back. While she worked as the Environmental and Engineer Services in the Global Real Estate section for TIAA Bank Field (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America), she kept this style for the entirety of her position.

“Because they [TIAA] met me with locks, it wasn’t a big deal. There was a range and plethora of people of color and a range and plethora of hairstyles [at TIAA],” Carter said.

Recently, Carter chopped off her long locks and tends to change her hairstyle often. The constant switching of styles leaves her unrecognizable to some coworkers.

“I never talked about my hair until I cut my locs and started changing my hair on a regular basis,” said Carter. “I would literally have people not recognize me.”

Although Carter never faced criticism or critiques about her natural hairstyle like many Black employees do from their peers, it baffles her that this conversation is still ongoing.

“I just can’t believe that in 2019, these are the conversations we’re having. To me, it’s an additional way to suppress who we are and oppress us, because what does that have to do with performance at all,” Carter said.

A ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made it legal to refuse hiring individuals with dreadlocks, according to Dawn Onley’s “U.S. Circuit Court rules it is legal to refuse jobs to people with dreadlocks”.

The issue of how Black people should look in a professional setting continues to be a prevalent topic discussed in today’s time. Yet, should a person’s hair determine their credibility in terms of capability?

“If I wanna shave it close or if I wanna rock locks, that don’t take a bit away from the soul that I got.”