I Am Not My Hair

Shalane Walker

I Am Not My Hair” is a famous song by India Arie full of the truth that is the struggle of being a Black woman with Black hair in a society with European beauty standards. I was only 9 when I asked my mom for my first relaxer, a very harsh chemical treatment that would make my curly hair permanently straight. Wearing my own hair in its natural state wasn’t even a consideration. That didn’t change as I got older. Everyone knew girls who were pretty all had straight hair, not kinky, curly hair like mine. My first week of work, I met a co-worker who was wearing her hair in an Afro puff. I assumed she must have been one of those hippie, or bohemian types, not a successful corporate woman. As I got to know her, I learned this was not the case at all. She was just like me, but she was not going to be ashamed of her natural hair. In 2009, a few of our work colleagues all went to see the movie “Good Hair”, a documentary by comedian Chris Rock. Groundbreaking at the time, the documentary offered up the first candid discussion of the Black beauty industry, and truly what did it mean to have “good hair” in America.

Fast forward a decade, things have made progress. The natural hair movement is still going strong. Commercials, TV shows, and movies now feature women with beautiful curls and afros.  It’s also acceptable in liberal working environments such as advertising or tech.

But we are not there yet. Overt and hidden discrimination based on wearing our hair the way it naturally grows is still prevalent. The CROWN Act, which makes discrimination against natural hair illegal, is slowly gaining traction in states across the country, but is not universal. Reflect on that: In America, in 2020,  it is not illegal to discriminate against someone based on their hairstyle.

Personal confession: Those who know me, know how much I enjoy experimenting with different hairstyles. But even after 12 years in the industry as an accomplished media expert, I still hesitate and think twice if to wear my hair natural when meeting new clients – worried if they’ll judge me as less professional, less qualified, or less knowledgeable. It results from growing up in a society where “white is right”, and their hairstyles are the standard of professionalism. But I’m working on this, and learning to gain confidence that my intelligence and expertise will speak for themselves, because at the end of the day, I am NOT my hair.

So what you can you do?

Learn: Good Hair is now streaming free on YouTube. Although 10 years old, there are still some universal truths that hold true today and can help form a basis of understanding.

Act: Visit The CROWN Act and sign the petition to make natural hair discrimination illegal at workplaces and at schools.

Think: Next time, one of your African-American colleagues switches up their hairstyle, be mindful of your response. Ask yourself if your response is based on understanding and ally-ship, or white norms and white culture. Oh yes, AND PLEASE STOP TOUCHING MY HAIR !

Thank you,

Shalane Walker

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