I have a long-standing theory.
A little while back, it felt like every major media outlet was publishing articles about how sooooo many black women were overweight, and were sooooo unwilling to workout because of… their hair.
Which, okay, sure… but what was the point of that?
Was it to passive aggressively call black women vain for caring about their appearance? Was it to call them stupid, snark their priorities, or make them feel bad for their choices?
It was so pervasive, this need to tell black women how petty they were for caring about their hair, that it felt like a collective need to turn this into a pathology of sorts – a disease that is exclusive to black women, this petty vanity.
A closer, more critical look, however, tells me that there’s a little bit more going on, here.
When I think about corporate culture, and all the conversations we’ve had here about society and its expectations on us, I also think about the consequences many of us face when we don’t live up to the expectations society sets for us. Take this, for example:
Melphine Evans sued BP West Coast Products, BP Products North America and nine people, in Orange County Superior Court.
Evans claims she was fired after nearly 10 years with British Petroleum Oil Co. and replaced with a younger white male, after a series of overtly racial complaints.
Evans began working for BP in early 2001 as vice president of North America’s Western Region, and was CFO BP West Coast Products in La Palma, Calif. when she was fired, according to her 24-page lawsuit.
She claims that her supervisors and other management responded to her complaints of race and gender discrimination “by telling her she ‘was the problem'” and with a litany of insensitive remarks.
According to the lawsuit, these remarks included:
“‘You intimidate and make your colleagues uncomfortable by wearing ethnic clothing and ethnic hairstyles (‘Dashikis,’ ‘twists,’ ‘braids/cornrows’). On one occasion, a BP representative went so far as to ask Ms. Evans ‘if she understood that wearing a “dashiki” to work makes her colleagues feel uncomfortable?’
“If you insist on wearing ethnic clothing/hairstyles-you should only do so during ‘culture day,’ black history month or special diversity events/days.’
“‘If you are going to wear ethnic clothing, you should alert people in advance that you will be wearing something ethnic …’
“‘We didn’t take any action against the contractor who placed the noose in the Cherry Point refinery because we weren’t really sure the rope that was placed there was meant to harass or intimidate employees … sometimes refinery employees practice tying knots and since there aren’t that many black employees at the refinery and the knot in the rope was not tied like a noose knot, we don’t believe it symbolized racial hatred or violence…’ [source]
I’m unwilling to say, totally and fully, that collectively having expectations of members of society is a bad thing. I think that’s messy waters. What I am willing to say, though, is that I reject the idea of society demanding that people abide by ill-informed expectations that never considered that there are people with cultures and histories that differ from its own.
It’s so easy to say that “professional hair” is straight hair, pulled away from the face, when for so long, the only “professionals” were women with naturally and effortlessly straight hair. It’s easy to say that a woman who chooses to wear twists, braids and cornrows is “the problem” and tell her to wear them “during black history month” because she’s a minority – by definition, she has no influence over “the majority.” It’s easy to tell a woman that embracing some element of her culture publicly “makes her colleagues uncomfortable” – consideration for her natural hair is entirely excluded from inclusion in defining “professional.” Her colleagues have no incentive to actually learn about her hair, or embrace it in a positive manner. They, instead, sit and wonder why she can’t just conform to looking like her white counterparts.
Evans was told that, in an environment where a contractor allegedly left a noose-that-isn’t-a-noose-but-we-call-it-a-noose-and-by-the-way-doesn’t-symbolize-racial-hatred for Evans to find, that she was the problem… all for wearing her natural hair.
Stakes are high for black people in this economy. Unemployment for black people, right now, is in the double digits. We watched many of our loved ones lose their houses. Hell, many of us have loved ones living with us until they get on their feet. Entire households are anchored solely on us remaining employed in our “good jobs.”
And, in the midst of it all, we may desperately want to work out. But, if we never learn how to care for our hair while working out, or if we don’t have the time to straighten/re-straighten our hair as frequently as we need… the choice becomes clear: skip the workouts and keep my job; or workout anyway, let my hair suffer, and potentially face office harassment because of it.
Suppose we’re not even talking about employment at all. Suppose this is just your local around-the-way girl.
Day in and day out, we’re beaten over the head with imagery intended to tell us what is beautiful. It’s often highly unattainable, at least without product purchases. That’s the point – buy our product, and you, too, can be beautiful. Straighten your hair, lighten your skin, even your complexion, darken your lashes, color your hair, fill in your brows, put on this body shaper, wear these high heels, buy this dress, wear this purse, get these boots. Now, and only now, are you beautiful.
And, for women, a lot is hinged on our beauty. Our ability to be promoted at work, our ability to gain entrance to graduate schools, and our ability to successfully acquire a long-term mate are all hinged on our beauty. The keys to upward mobility are hinged solely on our beauty, something that we believe is inextricably linked to our hair and how straight it is. And we spend hundreds, thousands of dollars each month – possibly more so than our naturally-straight-haired counterparts – playing catch-up. Remember, the definition of beauty that society perpetuates wasn’t created with non-whites in mind, so the amount of money we have to spend just to catch up to the rest of the pack is astronomical.
Why is it so unbelievable that we wouldn’t risk something that could damage our ability to successfully achieve any of that? Why is it so hard to believe that we’d be turned off from something that’d make it more difficult to maintain beauty in the way we’ve been taught to understand it?
“Beauty is pain,” but “beauty isn’t sweat.” Beauty is silent, that’s why ‘these loud ass black women need to shut up.’ Women are supposed to sit still and be pretty, like trophies, or porcelain dolls or something. Sweating, and reminding everyone that you’re actually not a member of the majority with your new growth peeking out the top… only makes it harder out here for you.
That’s part of the reason why Good Hair irked me so badly – sure, let’s pile on in myriad ways to prove how petty black women are, but not interrogate the culture that informs their “petty” choices. If black women decide to go natural en masse, and many of them get fired from their jobs for “discomforting their colleagues,” will we then have a conversation about racism in the workplace, or will there be a thousand thinkpieces about how black women sacrificed the good of “the black community” just to prove a point?
So, I’m curious. Do you feel any pressure from your current job to keep your hair a certain way? Are the potential boo-thangs in your life very vocal about how they prefer their partner to wear their hair? I wanna hear it!