Natural Hair and the Workforce


More and more African-American women are going natural and saying goodbye to chemical hair relaxers. In 2011, the number of Black women who said they did not use products to chemically relax or straighten their hair jumped to 36 percent, a 10 percent increase over the previous year, according to a report by Mintel, a consumer spending and market research firm. And sales of permanent cream relaxers dropped by 17 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to Mintel.

In Detroit, natural hair is everywhere. There are natural hair meetups, natural hair salons and even storytelling events spotlighting personal natural hair testimonies.

But there's one place that remains a challenge for natural hair aficionados: the workplace.

For many Black women, the urge to go natural is overshadowed by the fear that they will not be accepted or promoted at work. There are plenty of examples to reinforce that fear. In 2007, an editor at Glamour magazine declared that Afros were a "no-no" in the workplace and that dreadlocks were "political" and "inappropriate." Last year, a Louisiana TV station fired a meteorologist after she responded to Facebook comments about her short natural. And just last month, a Missouri woman was publicly grappling with her employer's new personal grooming policy that banned her dreadlocks. Would she cut her 10-year-old locs off to keep her job? It seemed unlikely.


"As I was growing up, natural hair was seen as negative, especially in the work environment," says Janice Cosby Bridges, a 57-year-old chief marketing officer at Ascension Health Michigan. "You just didn't see anyone who is a vice president or higher with natural hair."

Author Bell Hooks, winner of the National Book Award and influential critic of race, gender and politics, weighed in on the issue 20 years ago in her book, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery.

"The first body issue that affects Black female identity, even more so than color, is hair texture," wrote hooks. "Certainly, going out to work in a White world that has always been threatened by Black people who appear to be decolonized, has had a major impact on what Black females choose to do with our hair."

Straight path to success?

Danielle Bessant, 33, is the director of training and employee development at Planned Parenthood Mid and South Michigan. As a child growing up in Detroit, getting a perm was seen as a rite of passage.

"I was one of the last of my friends to get a perm," said Bessant, who earned her master's in education from Wayne State University. "My mom made me wait until I was 13-it was a symbol of being grown up, of being a woman."

It took her until her senior year in college to learn how to embrace her rich complexion and abundant hair. "I finally felt that my natural hair was an outward expression of my inner peace with my skin color," she says.

But graduation posed a potential setback for Bessant: "I was thinking that natural hair wasn't professional, and I didn't want my hair to play into my success once I graduated."

She straightened her hair in order to interview for a position with AmeriCorps. That's when she made a surprising discovery.

"I was interviewed by two Black women-one had locs, one had a low-cut fade," she says. "They were very confident, powerful, feminine women. That gave me the push to be myself, to be natural." She has been natural ever since.

The pressure to wear straightened hair in a work environment can be immense, even to women who already have made a firm commitment to natural hair. Barbara Wynder, 68, is a lawyer and Detroit businesswoman who has worn natural hair since 1963.

"My mother believed in press and curl," says Wynder, a native of Virginia. "As soon as I left my mother's house, I cut my hair. I played sports, and short hair was better for me."

When she graduated from Morgan State University and began interviewing for jobs in Detroit, she couldn't seem to land one. Her aunt told her that she wasn't getting a job because of her hair. She suggested that Wynder wear a wig.

"I put on a wig, but that still sticks in my craw," says Wynder. "I eventually got a job as a secretary at the Detroit Free Press, where I wore my natural hair to work. I promised myself that I would never do that again. What other people think of my hair is up to them. My business is what I think of myself."

Since then, Wynder has practiced with the city of Detroit's law department, served as the district court administrator in Pontiac, and launched White Glove Professional Cleaning company. During all that time, her hairstyle has been decidedly her own.

"Right now, I'd call it an altered mohawk that curves in the back," she says. "I never think about my customers or business when I'm styling my hair for me. My customers care about service, not about my hair."

Confident with kinks and coils

The common denominator for wearing natural hair at work is confidence. For some women, that kind of confidence doesn't come until midlife.

Bridges took months of research and testing out the idea with family and friends before deciding to go natural in August. Her cropped, straight, silver hair had become a signature style, garnering her modeling opportunities. That made her decision more complicated. "I had a lot of fear, because people are more accepting of short straight hair than short kinky hair," she says.

When she showed up at work with her tight curls, her boss, who is African-American, gave her an emotional embrace.

"The process of getting there is hard," says Bridges, who is still getting used to the varied reactions to her natural hair. "You feel more confident after you do it."

Rasheda Williams, 34, believes that confidence is the key, as well. The information officer at Wayne State University has been natural since 2005, when she and her mother "transitioned" together. In order to accomplish the look, Williams cut off about 4 inches of her hair. She struggled in the aftermath.

"You look in the mirror and that's not the person you're used to looking at," says Williams, who also founded a social enterprise, Empowered Flower Girl. The business offers workshops to help girls combat bullying and to live powerfully. "For many women, being real can be painful, especially if others made fun of their hair or skin when they were growing up."

Ultimately, Williams has gained "the self-confidence to rock it," deciding that her hairstyle is not negotiable.

36th District Court Judge Donna Robinson Milhouse is also uncompromising on her natural style. "If someone at work is opposed to your hair, maybe they're opposed to your nose being wide and your skin being dark," she says. "Maybe you don't want to work in that environment."

Milhouse, who graduated from Wayne State University Law School, never had to summon the courage to transition to natural hair-she has been natural since she was 9 years old. During her 16 years of private practice and more than 13 years on the bench, she has never felt that her low-cut hairstyle has been a roadblock to success.

"My advice to young women of color is that they should not let what they perceive to be a 'professional norm' inhibit them," Milhouse says. "I dress professionally and make it clear that my hair is my hair-I'm not changing it. I don't consider it a risk to be natural."

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