A risk analyst, an active-duty member of the United States Army, a public policy associate. Three different positions, but all positions revolving around the government and located in the nation’s capital. There is another thing these three positions have in common: all of the positions are taken by black women; black women with natural hair.
Women with government positions have natural hair? We know this may be a hard pill to swallow, but yes, in this present day rare sightings of natural hair can be seen walking up and down Capitol Hill. Black women with natural hair in government positions were once a rare commodity, but in today’s world, millennials are challenging the stereotype and staying true to their natural textures. But wherever there’s progress, there is still a long way to go, and wherever there’s one accepting person, there’s another five behind them with different views.
Why exactly is natural hair frowned upon in the professional world? There are many factors and generations to account for this reason. Natural hair in professional positions has always left a “nappy”, unpresentable taste in people’s mouths. Within black culture where separate, but equal remained supreme, black was not favored, especially black hair. To be accepted meant changing yourself to reflect Caucasian culture more than your own. This started with the hair. Most will not agree with this or say this, but sadly, this is true.
Not only did black women face challenges being black, but also being a women. As a women, black or white, a well-groomed appearance has been seen as more appropriate to the office place than a more eclectic style. Appearance for any women played a part in getting and maintaining a job. Those were back in the days where women were seen better fit for the kitchen and not for gaining the title of CEO.
Sadly, straight, not kinky hair in professional settings was also taught by our own heritage. The lingering thought of straight, long hair being favored over kinky curls still remains prevalent today. Ever since the production of the hot comb by Madam CJ Walker and the creation of perms, black women have tried all kinds of damaging tools all to stay proper, clean and accepted by every culture.
At Historically Black Colleges and Universities, rules are enforced about appearances for class, even to simply be accepted into the schools. Former Hampton University students have noted that most majors in the school ban dreadlocks or overly eccentric natural hair, even though this cannot be confirmed by the school.
With all of these factors, the realities of becoming a working women and not being judged off appearance, but work ethic ultimately leads to putting chemical products in black hair. After all, women already face challenges in the workplace and challenges from the color of their skin. Why add another cut to the wound and simply perm your hair?
This is a way of thought being passed from generation to generation. Today, we have schools banning black girls from wearing braids (braided extensions). Recently, two girls who were simply wearing protective hairstyles were banned from their prom and participating on the track team. Seriously, this is our real life, ladies.
And with this real life, let’s hear some real tea. Cue, the three ladies working in our government today. Because we want to respect the positions of these ladies, we will not release their names, but simply share their experiences of working in government positions with natural hair.
- Active-Duty Army Member: “Being that I am in the military, we have what is referred to as regulations that outline the parameters of our appearance while on and off duty. Being an African American female, I found that those rules really put a constraint on what I could do with my hair. As the regulation is really what I like to refer to as a blanket rule, it does not take into account the many different hair types of the women serving. As a minority woman, it has been very difficult to transition, because for a long time, most of the beneficial hairstyles for transition were not authorized to be worn. As the regulations outlined to the T, everything from the amount of space you could have from one braid to another to the size of your bun, the color of your hair weave or wig, and how straight your part line had to be was dictated. Wearing your curly fro had to meet specific measurements or it was viewed as un-kept. Being that I have worked in predominantly male and white environments, I never got much worry on my hair because most of them were too afraid to offend me, or weren’t familiar with the rules themselves to make a call on if I was in the wrong. My experience was always from other women, both negative and positive. So much that anytime I feel the need to change my hair, I always check with my group of mentors whom have been in the military 10+ years to give me the go or no-go on a style.
- Risk Analyst: “I have worn a weave with a closure, goddess locs, and Marley Twists within the workplace. When I have a braided style, they (coworkers) tend to ask what the style is called, the process for installation, how long it takes, and how much it costs. Depending on how close I am with that person, I usually give all the details because they’ll never know if they don’t ask. You can clearly tell some of them have never had African American friends. When I take them through the procedure, they are usually impressed/shocked at how long it takes and the cost behind the style. I receive the biggest compliments and get asked the most questions about my goddess locs (I guess because they look so natural). One thing that really irritates me is when they ask if they can “touch it”. I am not a pet, or on display for their liking. I understand this is new to them and I may be the closest person in the culture border that they encounter, but this isn’t a museum. For coworkers I have a relationship with(although it is few), I let them touch my hair. For whatever reason they find it fascinating. I usually try to educate them on the natural hair struggles (heat, humidity, styles such as twist outs). But for the randoms that I don’t speak with on a normal basis, or those that compliment from afar but have questions, I keep it short and sweet with them.”
- Public Policy Associate: “I’ve been in my current position for about a year and a half and would say that I wear my hair natural 98% of the time, so people in my work environment know this as my norm. Thus, when I straighten my hair I get tons of compliments / comments. Everything from “wow, your hair looks great!” to “what’s the special occasion?” Sometimes they preface it with “I like your hair curly, but…,” which makes it seem like they don’t really like my hair curly / prefer it straightened. I think one instance in particular that stood out was when someone I knew from another organization told me my hair looked more polished straightened; however, she preferred my curly hair because it matched my personality (lively / personable).
I think it’s also interesting to observe how I’m treated at networking events when my hair is natural (I work for a tech company and regularly attend policy events / meetings on and around the Hill). I definitely stand out quite a bit when my hair is natural, which I totally embrace. People typically always remember me and who I work for. That being said, I do feel like I need to offer an explanation for why I’m at an event very quickly after meeting someone new aka justifying my presence. There are many factors in play here (I look young, am relatively new in my position, am black, attend a wide array of events where I’m a new face, etc.), but I do think my hair plays a role.”
As these three ladies discussed their stories, one thing remains a fact: natural hair in the government is still not normal. That said, there’s still no reason to ask to touch someone’s hair, no reason to ask mentors their advice on hairstyles and no reason to justify your work capabilities because of your hair texture. Then again, this is life. This is life working in the government, the life of a women and the life of a natural, black woman. As if we don’t have enough to worry about.