I can still hear the crackling as the hot comb hit my heavily oiled coils. My mom, tired from washing and deep conditioning my thick, long locks, stood in the kitchen passing the comb over the open flame of the stove and painstakingly pressed my hair section by section. It took what felt like hours to straighten my hair into submission.
Before adolescence, my mom made the challenging decision to chemically straighten my hair with a relaxer. It made my hair much more manageable, but unfortunately left me with hair so damaged it barely grew past my shoulders before leaving broken black ends on my white school uniform.
How I wear my hair in the workplace has been an evolution and often a subject of conversation. From a shaved head to a “phony pony,” to a natural twist-out, to long box braids, I wear it all.
But the most memorable style for me was early in my career before I fully embraced my hair as part of my identity. After spending hours taking out my braids the night before, I went to the office with my hair in an afro style. I was set to see my hairstylist later that day and was struggling to contain my thick hair that now had a mind of its own after being bound in braids for two months. Not to mention, I liked the way my afro looked and how it made me feel. I felt powerful.
I walked through the office and received one compliment or comment after another. Some were laced with curiosity, while others seemed like they were walking a tightrope trying to find the right words to say. I appreciated the curiosity and wasn’t bothered by the not so hidden glances. I knew that my hair was new to many, especially in the confines of the office.
It wasn’t until I received a comment as I walked through the halls, that my feelings changed. A colleague looked at me with surprise and said, “You look like you stuck your finger in an electric socket,” and walked away.
That comment was over 10 years ago, and I remember it to this day. Why? Because that was the first moment, I felt like my hair was an offense. That was the moment my mom sought to help me avoid by spending hours over a hot stove on a Saturday, and taking me on countless trips to the salon.
Now don’t get me wrong, I always knew that natural Black hair styles were not widely accepted as professional hair styles in predominately non-Black environments (e.g., corporate America), but I think a small part of me thought I was somehow exempt from that bias.
This is the reason there is The CROWN Act (U.S.) and the Halo Code (U.K.) to acknowledge the necessity to create acceptance for Black natural hair, and fight against hair discrimination in the workplace.*
There is work that still needs to be done; biases that need to be recognized, discussed, and obliterated. Black employees like me cannot be our best selves and do our best work, unless we can be our authentic selves, including in how we wear our hair.
Since that incident walking down the hall, I’ve made it my quiet mission to embrace my natural hair and the styles of my culture, resisting biases and negative perceptions. Whether my hair is in a protective style like braids, pressed straight down my back, or a crown sitting high on my head in an afro style, I am a professional and my hair is too.
At Viasat, we encourage allyship by showing support for social justice, inclusion, and human rights for all employees. Promoting allyship in a workplace includes using your voice to raise awareness on different issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; and supporting colleagues from historically marginalized communities. We demonstrate allyship by empowering the members of our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to educate other employees about what diversity, equity, and inclusion means to them. Click here to learn more about our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
*The first U.S. CROWN Act law passed in California in 2019. This law was created to prohibit discrimination based on race-based hairstyles, including hair texture and styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in both the workplace and public schools. Since 2019, 20 other states and 30 cities have passed similar laws. A federal CROWN Act law has also been proposed but is not yet final. Similarly, an alliance in the U.K. created the Halo Code in 2020, a code that many employers and organizations have adopted that promises employees the freedom to wear natural hair styles without judgment or restriction in furtherance of the U.K. Equalities Act of 2010. That act prohibits all forms of race-based discrimination.