Black folks have always had a list of unwritten rules for navigating life. A quick Google search of “unwritten black rules” will yield you hours’ worth of pure comedy—there are more than 1 million hits. You’ll find pearls such as “If you drink the last of the Kool-Aid, make some more,” and “Kids, don’t ask for nothing, don’t look at nothing, and don’t touch nothing when you get in this store.” And don’t even get me started on the potato salad; it has a list all its own. There are some things we just know.
So when I landed a face-to-face interview this week for an amazing opportunity in corporate America’s beauty industry, my initial thought—along with elation and accomplishment—was:
“Oh, shit. My hair.” I just knew.
Manager few months ago, I was laid off from my position as salon manager at an upscale Las Vegas hotel. Thankfully, my company gave me a pretty decent severance package that allowed me to take some time finding the perfect fit for my next career move; and let’s just say I used my time to ... unwind.
Out of pure laziness, I stopped applying heat to my hair, let go of the 18-inch tracks I’d been rocking, and replaced my daily flat-iron routine with Afro puffs, twists and braids. I didn’t have any sort of “back to my roots” epiphany or loyalty to the curly revolution. I considered it one of the perks of not working.
Needless to say, as acknowledged by an article in Teen Vogue earlier this year, black women know one of the rules on our list is “straight hair for the interview, natural hair once you’re in the door.” Even with 2018 right around the corner—and newly coined phrases like “curlista,” “naturalista” and our obsession with twist-outs—we’re still playing this game.
The military made headlines when it finally revised long-standing rules banning natural hairstyles in 2014. Sisters in finance, law and political fields also have it especially hard, but people are often shocked when I tell them I face this struggle in the beauty industry—and how could they not be? If nothing else, shouldn’t the beauty industry be the first to embrace trends and be the pioneers of change? Sadly, that’s not the case.
As I navigated my career in upscale salons, I encountered so many scenarios that left me feeling hopeless and frustrated. For instance, I distinctly remember one director at a high-end salon I managed asking my Eritrean peer if she planned to comb her hair that day; she was referring to her beautiful mane of envy-worthy coils and ringlets. Then there was the “planning meeting” I attended where we discussed doubling the prices for services geared toward ethnic clientele so we’d get fewer requests for them—because none of the stylists in the salon could competently perform them.
I still remember the look of raw fear on a receptionist’s face and the way she eyed my freshly done braids when I walked into a popular blow-dry boutique inquiring about an appointment. She only began to relax when I reassured her that I was making the appointment for a mutual client.
But I reached the height of my frustration last summer when Beckys began to visit our salon in droves, requesting “boxer/Kardashian” braids (better known as cornrows), and I was beckoned on multiple occasions to “help out.” Because, of course, appropriation is OK, but embracing my natural God-given texture is an act of defiance.
And despite the fact that natural-hair bias has led to a number of discrimination cases against employers, things don’t seem to be improving. In September 2016, a federal court ruled in favor of businesses having the right to fire employees or turn away job applicants simply for choosing to wear dreadlocks. The struggle is real out here in these streets.
When an employer can take one look at my hair and legally decide that in its natural state it’s a distraction and a liability, I have to ask the question: What am I ’pose to do now? Is the answer to conform, or do I take a stand (or a knee) and hope I luck up on the company willing to see past my do and judge me by what I can do? Better yet, is there a company out there that naturally embraces the diversity and beauty of natural hair? The jury is still out.
Judge not lest ye be judged. For now, it is about making the choice you feel is right for you. For me, that’s natural.
Our days are filled with choosing our battles, and I’m becoming more and more thankful for the Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat gurus carving out a place where there once was none. Sisters like Nikki Walton of the popular blog Curly Nikki and YouTuber Shaneice Crystal of Natural Neiicey arm us with tutorials and articles that can be used as guides for redefining what beauty means for us.
The days of asking for a seat at the table, seeking recognition or demanding representation are hopefully quickly becoming a thing of the past. In its place, #BlackGirlMagic is taking center stage.
Let’s rejoice in it.