The Hairy Reality of Being Black In The Workplace

02 August 2022

‘It doesn’t smell does it?’ *recoils in horror*

Have a go at guessing what that comment was in response to…

An awfully out of date yoghurt? A gory wound? Entering the room your flatulent pet dog has been relaxing in?

This comment was actually said in a conversation about my hair earlier in the week (not by one of my fabulous 106 collegues). And no, there wasn’t some kind of rotting vegetable balancing on my head.

All jokes aside, comments such as these are worryingly commonplace in work environments and have a marked impact on Black people’s sense of belonging.

65% of Black Gen Z do not feel confident wearing their natural hair in the workplace. Compare that to the 76% of White Gen Z who do feel confident.[1] Responsible for the difference in these statistics are the Eurocentric beauty standards which dictate what is most widely accepted in terms of appearance. Unfortunately, these are not shifting any time too soon.

 So, what can businesses do to help their employees feel comfortable wearing their hair in its natural state?

 *Might I just add that doing so is sure to increase the productivity and punctuality of their staff members as they may not feel obliged to wake up at the crack of dawn to undertake an extensive hair ‘taming’ regime.*

 Firstly, understand the issue at hand here. If your staff do not feel comfortable being themselves, then they are unlikely to thrive. Try to place yourselves in the shoes of somebody whose mind is preoccupied with something as menial as the strands of keratin emerging from their head, rather than the tasks at hand.

Secondly, ensure that the comms and content you share internally within your workplace have tackled the issue. Perhaps circulate testimonials from staff members who are willing to share their experiences. After all, I believe 90% of the time, comments such as the one I received are rooted in ignorance, rather than intentional offence. Indeed, it was said to me after an initial compliment and I’m sure they meant no harm. Even during the application/interview process, make sure you explicitly position yourself as valuing diversity in appearance/hair texture.

 Thirdly, it’s often argued that it is not the sole responsibility of Black people to raise awareness of diversity issues. Such situations are labelled ‘cultural taxation’, because of the burden they place on these members of staff.[2] Therefore, direct staff members to existing resources such as Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri or the World Afro Day report[3], which provide comprehensive food for thought.

Ultimately, I understand that at times, Black hair can be fascinating, and the variety of styles and textures may astound people. However, remember that the person just beneath their hair is not a zoo animal to be probed and gawked at… Instead, research and endeavor to learn what is involved in the upkeep and maintenance of such complexities. Ensure your company’s comms, both internally, and externally, are aware of the issues Black staff may face and remain culturally sensitive.

 Millie Finch




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