Natural Hair in the Workplace: My Story

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Life as a lawyer has been an interesting adventure.  I wanted to become a lawyer to promote liberty, empowerment, and justice. And I’m beyond proud how far I’ve come.  However, throughout this journey I’ve had to overcome an inferiority complex based off, of all things, my hair.

As an African American woman with super curly hair, the battle to have a healthy self-esteem began early. And I was lucky, I grew up in South Carolina with  strong family, friends, and community. In my small town, the hair salon was not just a grooming center, but a place for connecting with the community. I enjoyed going there, sharing teenage life quandaries with my hairstylist. She listened carefully and gave me great advice. At the time, she was also the person who helped make my natural hair as “straight” as possible. That was my primary focus at the time, I would ask her for the best relaxer and a trendy hairstyle. I needed to feel accepted, so I wanted to conform.

When I moved to New York for law school, life changed drastically. My migration felt like immigration. New York was a melting pot of people from various African- descent communities – African, African American, Caribbean, Latin American, and anything else you could think of. This was quite different from my small town in South Carolina where most of the population had a similar background. For the first time in my life, I felt like I stood out. I was an African American woman, with a Southern accent.

But never the less, I found friends and our relationships were rooted in humanity and an international sense of community. Through them I learned to embrace my differences and my natural hair. They inspired me to wear braids and twists. And it was right around this time, that I started externships—my first foray into the professional world of law.

Hair Styling by Aicheria Bell

While no one commented or gave me looks of disapproval, I started to notice that women in professional work environments generally had straight hair. And I began to question how I wore my own hair. Perhaps my natural hairstyles weren’t the best presentation in class or during an externship? I felt uncomfortable.  Regardless of how good my grades were or the strides I was making in my career, I could not stop the need to justify myself. And even after I had made it through law school, those innermost concerns about my super curly natural hair and how I was being perceived lingered.

Anxiety about my hair depended upon the work environment. In academia or public service, the work environments are generally less restrictive and so I felt more comfortable wearing natural hairstyles. In corporate settings,  straight hair appeared to be preferred amongst my colleagues. There was a need to represent a “business image.”  And so, after law school a straight haired weave replaced my natural hairstyles.

There’s a challenge that exists when it comes to balancing the need to fit in at work and the desire to embrace cultural identity.  And I know I’m not alone in my struggle. Several natural friends, who are preparing for job interviews,  have expressed that they feel the need to straighten or change their hair. I’ve heard from many transitioners who are afraid of being perceived as unprofessional. And that fear is justified, as there have been cases where natural hairstyles resulted in candidates not being hired or employees being fired.

Because of my own insecurities I became passionate about legal issues related to natural hair in the workplace and have since published a book, “Natural Hair in the Workplace: What Are Your Rights?” The book examines natural hair in the workplace, rights to protection from workplace discrimination, and the obligation to comply with dress and grooming codes.

What’s interesting is that the judiciary has and continues to distinguish between natural hair and natural hairstyles. Natural hair such as an afro or curls growing out of your scalp are possibly protected by law. But, natural hairstyles like braids or dreadlocks – might not be. And recently, a federal court held that an employer can ban dreadlocks in the workplace.

I understand both sides.  As a super curly deva with years of legal work experience, wearing natural hairstyles in the workplace has been a dilemma. It’s challenging to balance professionalism and the desire to embrace cultural identity.

Tracy Sanders is an attorney, author, and speaker in Los Angeles, CA. She is founder of Natural Hair and Law, which is an organization formed to provide publications, workshops, and events addressing legal issues related to natural hair in the workplace and schools.  She earned a Juris Doctor Degree at Syracuse University College of Law in 2002, Master of Public Administration degree at the University of South Carolina in 1998, and Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of South Carolina in 1995. Tracy has made appearances on networks such as ABC, FOX, MSNBC, TLC, and WE. 

The DevaCurl team wants to thank Tracy for sharing her story, and now we want to open up the conversation to our community. What are your thoughts on the topics Tracy brought up? Share with us in the comments.