What They Really Mean When They Call Black Hair ‘Unprofessional’
There is something particularly violent about White women being the phenotypic referent of beauty in every social space. While it can make life logistically difficult for folks who do not share physical characteristics with whites (like hair, skin type, figure, etc.), the real problem arises when that difference is seen as a flaw. This is especially frustrating in public spaces like the workplace as a Zara employee recently learned when she wore box braids to work.
A 20-year-old biracial woman named Cree Ballah recently quit her job at the clothing retailer after her managers at a Toronto store location told her hair did not give a “professional appearance.” They pulled her to the side and instructed her that she needed to change her hairstyle. The braids she wore were pulled back in a bun at the time. And, while Ballah plans to file official discrimination charges against them, the company has maintained that there were no discriminatory actions involved in this altercation.
That is where this conversation becomes quite interesting. The company determined that the actions the managers took against this young woman (who was wearing a style typically worn by Black women) was not discriminatory. Yet, the call for Ballah to look “professional” implies that a) this particular hairstyle is devoid of professionalism, and b) the people of color who would usually be the wearers of this hairstyle are more likely to be seen as unprofessional. While the company has no official dress code policy, this seems as though any style typically worn by ethnic minorities (like afros, twist outs, cornrows, etc.) might be deemed unprofessional and just cause for corrective actions by management.
In this way, we can read the critique of Ballah’s hair to simply mean she wasn’t being white enough. Her hair deviated too far from the norms and centrality of whiteness and they wanted her to correct it. So, “unprofessional” really just means “non-white,” right?
We have seen so many stories where young Black women and girls have been sent home from jobs and school for wearing their natural hair. Textures like kinks and curl continue to be seen as unkempt, unclean, or politically oriented when it is simply the way their hair grows.
The centrality of whiteness, then, is not just a nuisance. It is a violent act of Othering that too often has social, political, and economic ramifications for non-white people. We have to call it out and address it as what it is.