Black women contend with the aforementioned gender constraints on appearance, as well as racialized constraints. Hair is a helpful tool for examining the unique, intersectional challenges confronted by Black women (Johnson, 2013). Hair is an important though understudied element of the business uniform that is full of symbolic meaning (Berry, 2008) and that has important implications for identity and authenticity in the workplace. Because of its mutable nature, how one decides to groom their hair may communicate self-identity and values (Johnson, 2013), making hair a key way to construct, preserve, and alter one’s identity (Opie & Phillips, 2015; Sheane, 2012; Weitz, 2001).
Historically, Black hair was characterized as the antithesis of Whiteness; that is, Black hair was portrayed as the antithesis of what is good, proper, and beautiful (Thompson, 2009). In fact, Black hair was sometimes not even called “hair” but “wool,” likening it more to animal fur than human hair (Byrd & Tharps, 2001). Such conceptions dehumanized Black people, suggesting that Black people were sub-human, more like animals than people (Dash, 2006; Holmes, 2016).
Advertisements encouraged Black people to straighten their hair so that they would be more socially accepted and desired, perhaps even more humanized. Straight hair signified collective progress and higher economic class. Black hair that was straightened, conforming to Eurocentric norms of beauty, was privileged over natural, kinky textured hair (Thompson, 2009). Hair is second only to skin color in determining “Blackness” (Mercer, 1994). In the case of Black women in particular, Afrocentric or naturally textured1 hairstyles that reflect African heritage (Johnson, 2013) are often viewed as being in violation of workplace appearance norms; and, therefore, labelled as unprofessional. The message that Afrocentric hair is unprofessional or undesirable is reinforced by advertising and cultural norms and reified by the law, which allows employers to discriminate based on employee hairstyle (Caldwell, 1991).
1 Naturally textured hair refers to women wearing their hair in a chemically unaltered state that reveals its naturally wavy, coily, or kinky texture. While some Black women have naturally straight hair, textured hair characterizes the majority of Black women (Mintel, 2016).
Contemporary media cases illustrate that hair remains a policed domain for Black women. For example, a manager of a New York branch of Banana Republic instructed an African-American employee, 19-year-old Destiny Thompkins, that her braided hairstyle violated the company’s dress code. Specifically, Thompkins’ manager stated, “It is a little too urban and unkempt for our look and image. We were wondering if you could take them out.” Thompkins shared her experience on social media and the news media picked up her story. Banana Republic launched an investigation of the incident and the manager was subsequently fired. An excerpt from the company’s statement noted, “Banana Republic has zero tolerance for discrimination. This situation was completely unacceptable, counter to our policies, and in no way reflects our company’s beliefs and values” (Nelson, 2017) . Media outlets such as Essence Magazine, Teen Vogue, The Atlantic, the BBC, NPR, and other popular outlets have discussed the discrimination that Black women face based on their hairstyles (e.g., see Bates, 2017; Dirshe, 2018; Honey, 2017; Sini, 2016; Wilkinson, 2016). This landscape explains why Black women are particularly susceptible to hair policing in the workplace, experiencing pressure to conform to Eurocentric standards of hair grooming (Opie & Phillips, 2015).
The process of attaining “beautiful” (i.e., Eurocentric) hair has been described as violent as Black women may endure, among other things, physical discomfort and a symbolic stripping away of their African heritage when they chemically straighten their hair (Oyedemi, 2016). Black people spend much time, energy, and money on their hair, as evidenced by the presence of multiple barbershops and salons in Black neighborhoods (Mercer, 1994); as well, Black people spend considerable expenditures on hair care products and styling, with the Black haircare market estimated at $2.5 billion (Mintel, 2017). Black people clearly give thought to their hair and this makes it more difficult when Black employees experience hair policing in the workplace. It is important to note that I am not arguing that for Black women, natural hair = authentic and Eurocentric hair = inauthentic.