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I love my hair... But my job thinks otherwise  

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More states are trying to protect black employees who want to wear natural hairstyles at work

By: Jena McGregor 

In 2017, at a gala luncheon hosted at the opulent Cipriani 42nd Street in New York, Minda Harts found herself seated next to a recruiter for corporate board positions. Over cocktails and a plated fish entree, the two talked about race in the boardroom; the recruiter, a white woman, complained about the challenges of finding black women to be corporate directors.

To test how she’d respond, Harts, who founded a career development company for women of color and had a book on the topic released in August, asked the recruiter who she would feel more comfortable putting forward as a candidate for a board: a woman of color with a sleek ponytail, or one with a natural hairstyle such as locs or an Afro. The recruiter said the woman with the ponytail, Harts recalled. “The phrase she used was ‘clean-cut,’ ” Harts said.

Harts said she wasn’t altogether surprised, given the woman had said it was difficult to find black female directors. But it was a reminder that “these unconscious and conscious biases keep us from even having the opportunity to have a seat at the table. We haven’t even had the chance to introduce ourselves, and there [are] these assumptions of unprofessionalism,” Harts said.

“I’ll be honest with you: I wear my hair straight probably 99 percent of the time because, being in corporate America, I’ve seen how clients who have braids and natural hairstyles can be looked upon.”

Concern about the damage caused by heat and chemical straightening and the support offered by online communities are contributing to the latest iteration of the natural hair movement, with some black women adopting locs, braids, soft curls and otherwise embracing their cultural heritage.

Several states have recently taken steps to push employers, schools and the broader culture to move with them, and help dismantle a culture of discrimination experienced by black women and men who say they continue to face implicit or explicit pressures to conform, unwelcome comments or even outright discrimination.

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Raquel Garcia
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Joined: 10 months ago

At my previous jobs, I always felt like I had to explain my curly hair. As a woman of color, coworkers always said I look better when I straightened my hair. Diversity in the workplace is a start, but the culture should allow for people to express themselves and feel included, even with their hair. I think moving towards broader understanding and acceptance of natural hair would help build self-esteem if started in schools and promote confidence in the workplace. 

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As a middle school teacher, I know the struggles that young people face to try to fit in. One of the things I admire most about some of my students is when they find ways to embrace who they are and show confidence. Middle school is a challenging time in terms of development and wanting to fit in so I try to do my part and compliment students on their great style and uniqueness, because the last thing they need is their teacher telling them that their hair is not appropriate. I teach career based courses, so I do talk about professional attire and behavior, especially when teaching them about interviews for high school applications. The only thing I would say that I point out to students is that certain colors might not be as appropriate in a corporate setting, but that at this age, they should express themselves the way that makes them feel good about themselves. I love that more people are getting on board with this idea. I hope we can all embrace the fact that everyone is different and that is a good thing.