When I’m the only Black person in all-white spaces, there’s always something about me that needs to be explained or addressed. And my hair is the No. 1 culprit.
My natural hair would be the natural choice to wear to work if I wanted, but for some reason, it can be viewed as sloppy, distracting, or unprofessional. Honestly, I should be allowed to list my upwards of $3,500 annually haircare costs as a tax write-off since it’s low-key required if you want to exist in Corporate America as a POC.
This is why the CROWN Act was passed in March 2022 to prohibit race-based hair discrimination, such as “the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles.” But being viewed as “unprofessional” for my hair isn’t the only reaction I fear. There’s another kind of unsolicited attention that can also be incredibly awkward.
For instance, the time in my mid-20s, when I wore hip-length knotless box braids to work, we might as well have called an emergency company meeting about it.
Now, nothing is more classic than some good old-fashioned box braids. They’re low-maintenance, ageless, timeless, and can also be styled in any length, color or braid thickness. Besides the six-hour install and six-hour takedown, braids are the perfect hairstyle, especially in the summer.
So when warm weather hit early in NYC, I found myself in Harlem, where braiding salons are plentiful. While I stared at myself in the mirror, I wondered if a colleague would have something socially inept to say about my hairstyle…again. But even though I solely represented half of the Black population at the fashion brand where I worked, racial diversity was of the utmost importance, apparently. We even signed a diversity manifesto upon hiring!
This was my first job after working as an Executive Assistant for five years, where I never considered wearing braids because it was a formal work environment. Wearing braids to an all-white finance office would be like wearing a skimpy swimsuit to your grandmother’s funeral; no one would know how to act. Instead, I always had a mid-back, straight, non-threatening sew-in.
But this new office was trendy and fashionable! We could wear stylish sneakers and bright nails. People here got it, yet when I walked by my boss (white) one morning, I immediately recognized her quizzical facial expression.
You would assume people could put two and two together when it came to hair extensions. If it’s short one day and long the next, what other explanation could there be? Of course, these are extensions.
Her face shifted from confusion to excitement, eventually settling on genuine child-like wonder. She was operating at the same frequency as a puppy gleefully experiencing its first pile of freshly raked leaves. I’ve never seen a person so infatuated by my existence before. She asked if I had free time later, so I could “tell her more about my hair.” I wasn’t sure if this was a joke because what exactly would I tell her? I got braids. I didn’t go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Sandals Jamaica.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to fully break down the methodologies behind the most common protective hairstyle at 7:41 a.m. on a weekday, but let’s see where this goes.
OK, firstly (and VERY respectfully, as you are my boss, and I feel the need to accommodate all your personal inquiries), yes. You caught me. I had a respectable shoulder-length haircut on Tuesday and ass-length braids the next day. I can explain! These are called extensions, and they’re self-explanatory! Done. Whose hair is it? Unclear. Sorry, I know I should have mentioned all this and more in my interviews, but I genuinely didn’t think it would come up this quickly or ever.
I am wondering a little why you’re asking this now since you’ve seen me in these braids for four days already. Oh, you were confused because I had them in a bun on Tuesday and Wednesday, but today they’re in a ponytail? That’s because my braids were in a bun on Tuesday and Wednesday, but today they’re in a ponytail. I hope that helped clear things up?
How do I wash my hair? I’m happy to answer; that’s a work-appropriate question! Sometimes Windex, sometimes Fantastico; it depends on my mood. Past that, it’s just a regular blow dry job… using my white boyfriend’s hot breath, that is.
How often do I wash my hair? How often do you do your laundry? How often do you wear a bra without washing it? How often do you shower? Do you have full body wash every time? Do you wash your hands first or go straight for the body? Do you typically wipe front to back? What’s your favorite brand of tampon? Does the carpet match the drapes? It’s about time you and I loudly discussed!
Oops! One sec, the volume from our Upbeat Lofi Spotify Office playlist is low. Mind if I fully pause it? I noticed 75 percent of our 40-person office listening in on our conversation. That’s 30 adults awkwardly hearing me explain what “edges” and my “kitchen” are, and I’d like to see that number get closer to 100 percent. You’re asking some solid questions; everyone has the right to know the answers.
Do I feel singled out and triggered by this entire interaction? Haha, absolutely! I guess it reminds me just a bit of the childhood pool parties and summer barbecues in Texas, where all the white girls would recklessly jump into a chlorine pool without a proper skin-toned swim cap to protect their hair. Me? I would never do something so dangerous. And before you ask, yes, my brown latex cap made me look like a penis, and yes, I did field A LOT of questions about it.
I’d try to explain that chlorine makes my hair “break,” which caused confusion and hysteria every time the question was asked, coincidentally, every time we were at the pool. When I rerouted their stumpers to my mother, she’d say, “Well, did you ask why their hair doesn’t break?” Good question! Never came up.
After a long, relaxing day of teaching Black physics to my gaggle of third-grade friends, we’d pile into an outdoor shower to rinse off before refueling with Lunchables. They’d all laugh together while passing around bottles of shampoo and conditioner someone’s mom packed in a Vineyard Vines bag, but when the bottles got to me, I’d politely decline. My chemically relaxed hair needed something a bit more… specific.
“Oh, your shampoo and conditioner is in the shape of a smiling strawberry, smells like sugar, and has a kitschy title? Cute! Mine’s a thick blend of chemicals in a gray bottle with ‘bicarbonate’ in the name!” And the Black physics lesson would start again.
If I could pass words of encouragement to my 8-year-old self, I’d say: First of all, you don’t look like a penis. You’re very cute, and one day you will be very hot. Second of all, your hair requires extra attention because it’s not easy to be flawless. Lastly, being emotionally prodded over trivial things about yourself is a rite of passage, so congratulations! You’ve officially received another punch on your Black Card. I’d suggest writing some go-to elevator speeches for moments like these because it’ll happen many times again. Forever!
My advice to those wondering how to act right is to simply not make it weird. I think a question or two is fine if you’re at a personal level, but much like every other human interaction you’ve had in your life, no ogling or touching is allowed. Just pretend I’m a regular person!
When I was younger, I’d thoroughly internalize this (and every other instance like it) and eventually self-implode. Today, I’m not outwardly offended by microaggressions like these; I’m just tired. On the other side of things, my mom always tells me, “Your response is your responsibility.” You can really only control yourself.
So, in the end, I nicely answered about 20 seconds worth of my bosses’ questions before “jokingly” suggesting she make the trek to Harlem and get her own set of braids since she likes them so much. She laughed but then stopped after I dryly said, “No. Seriously.”
In the end, she decided against it.
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