In this post, I wrote about my initial hair-related experiences in Corporate America as a Black woman. Sadly, after over a decade later, I still experience the unsolicited, often annoying commentary regarding my tresses. And I must say, I have still not gotten used to it. Even though I have come to expect it, I still find myself getting worked up. However, judging by the number of hair-related tweets that were featured in the #BlackWomenAtWork twitter eruption this week, I am not alone.
Recently I worked with an amazing, fast-paced, startup – unbelievable perks, flexible environment. The kind of place that has essential oil workshops, Wednesday in-office yoga and free vegan food at our fingertips. This is the company of my dreams…with one exception. I am the only Black woman that works there. The only raisin in the proverbial cookie. Let that sink in for a minute.
So I essentially have two jobs. One is the job I was hired for, a Supply Chain executive, while the other is the more tedious, unpaid responsibility of representing Blackness.
A couple of weeks ago, I walked into work on Monday, doing my usual route – walk in, head to kitchen to drop off lunch, fix my breakfast smoothie and eggs, before heading down to my desk. I should mention that this kitchen is unlike that in most offices. Equipped with a full range, pots and pans, a Vitamix and free food, our kitchen is often the office hangout, as someone is usually making breakfast or baking vegan goodies for everyone. Anyhoo, as I walk in, one of my White, female coworkers (let’s call her Becky) engages me in the following exchange:
Becky: (overly excited voice) Oh my god! I love your hair!
Me: (feigning the same level of excitement) Thank you!
Becky: You always change your hair so much.
Me: (trying to be polite and light-hearted) Yea, you know I have to keep you guys guessing.
Becky: Yea, I almost didn’t recognize you.
I think to myself sarcastically: yea because there are so many Black women that work here, huh? I start to inch towards the door, the familiar twinges of irritation creeping in already.
That’s when she hit me with the…
Becky: But it’s a weave though, right?
Me: blank stare
Becky: Like, it’s not real, right?
At this point, everyone in the kitchen turns and looks at me, eagerly awaiting my response. Embarrassed, I mumble something incomprehensible and walk away.
While she carried on making her oatmeal like nothing happened, my entire morning was ruined. This Becky-with-the-good-hair (lol!), who was several years my junior both in age and experience, had found a way to reduce me to a self-conscious mess. Was everyone staring at my hair? Did they sit around talking about my hair? I found myself increasingly angry, not just for this incident but for every single hair-related “compliment” I had received in Corporate.
However, it took me a long minute to come up with the exact reason for my anger.
In addition to embarrassment, I couldn’t believe how comfortable she was in her tone-deafness. I mean, you would have to live under a rock to be completely oblivious to the significance of hair to Black women.
I sent a note to Becky about mid-day, including an article titled Top 10 things to Not Say to a Black Woman. Of course, ‘asking if her hair is a weave’, was in the top 3.
Me: I found your comment about my hair today culturally insensitive. Here is an article to explain further.
Becky: Oh my god, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m so sorry.
We ended up having a conversation in which I broke it down to its finest detail. I explained to her the difference between a true compliment and intrusive comments about Black hair. I even likened the embarrassment I felt in the situation to one she might feel if I asked her if she had gotten a boob job, in front of everyone. I also recommended that she broaden her social circle, including women from different backgrounds, in order to improve upon her cultural awareness. Lastly, I told her not all extensions are called weaves (I actually had crotchets in). I have to say I was proud of myself.
Normally when I am faced with these situations, I find myself suffering in irritated silence, in a bid to avoid being labeled ‘angry’ or ‘abrasive’ – words that pretty much signal the death-spiral of a Black woman’s career in Corporate. As I evolve into a more seasoned Corporate citizen, I have found that it is progressively difficult for me to swallow micro-aggressive comments like these without finding a subtle way to address the situation. Why should I remain silent for their comfort while mine is pretty much non-existent? Don’t I deserve to be my authentic self, without someone offering up a faux compliment, which is really just a segue into something more invasive? Don’t I deserve to do my hair as I please, without a single thought to what someone will say about its length or lack thereof?
My answer is I do.
So you know who had a short teeny weeny afro on Friday and will be showing up on Monday with 14” Marley twists, this girl! ☺