Watercooler: Your afro is unprofessional

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog in which we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from an anonymous social work intern:

It was going to be a normal day at my social work internship, or so I thought. I drove up to the agency that I was assigned to from the graduate college of social work since the January. I walked up the stairs and entered the dim-lit office where my field instructor was patiently waiting for me. She gave me a gingerly smile as I opened the door, “C’mon in … how ‘ya been?” and I anxiously replied “I’m doing good”. That day, we sat down together to work on the educational contract that is established between my field instructor and I.

The educational contract has several parts within its framework. The contract itself, is used by the college of social work as a tool to measure my progress within my first 450 hours of field practice within a social work agency. The contract is organized in sections that pertain to professionalism, skills, and social work values of social work intern. It is the field instructor’s duty to evaluate the intern on the basis of these criteria.

She rated me from my capability to acknowledge my own biases and how they affect clients, all the way to my cultural competency in working with clients. It had already been an hour and everything was going smoothly. For the most part she evaluated me fairly, as I had no problem with accepting any form of constructive criticism — with the exception of one in particular, and that was when she made it a point to critique my afro. She said “I don’t know how to ask you this, but I wanted to talk about professionalism and your big afro”. I could not believe my ears. Did she, a fellow female social worker critique my hair by labeling it as unprofessional? I was in a complete state of shock and dissolution about the woman sitting in front of me.

More importantly though, I was thinking about the macro problem of racial stereotyping. Racial stereotyping can seriously cause a lot of emotional damage to an individual, and I found it disheartening that my professor harbored the concept that my afro was somehow unprofessional. The truth was that she was not sure how I would react. Once again, as a biracial black woman, I felt a polar opposite tension between us. On one hand, I felt sympathy for her because I knew that she really did not know any better. One the other hand, I felt angry and distraught … compelled to yell and scream in protest, because once again, I was going to be judged by the style of my hair. India Arie’s song “I am not my hair” was playing in the background of my mind as I contemplated what to say to her.

She looked at me, and I told her this: “I try every day to fight the stereotype that my natural hair is below “normal” standards. There are professionals from California to New York that sport an afro, and they are as professional as one can get. I mean, what about the ‘Imus’ incident about ‘nappy headed hoes’? In general, I believe it is a southern thing. People in the south view the afro as threatening and loud. This could easily be perceived as unprofessional. We have a lot of work to do with regard to racial stereotyping in the south, especially here in the south”. She did not disagree with me, but she did say “Well, I just want you to keep in mind in your future, that when you go for an interview, your afro might not be seen as very professional, and it might jeopardize your career”. I nodded back at her, because I knew at that point that this conversation was going no where fast. When I came home at night, I told my friends and family “You know, when she told me how my afro would jeopardize my career in the future, I thought to myself — why would I even want to work for people who judge me not on the basis of my character and hard work, but on my physical attributes?”.

So to all those black women who wear their hair natural, I say in the words of Bob Marley, “get up stand up… stand up for your rights. Get up stand up, don’t give up the fight!”.

Please email team@raceintheworkplace.com if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.

Comments

  1. lavron wrote:

    I say go naturally curly. Just use Mixed Chicks products and role with who you are.

  2. Angel H. wrote:

    Just becaue some biased heifer can’t handle her hairstyle, doesn’t mean she should change her look. It wasn’t the intern’s problem; it was the boss’

  3. Brunsli wrote:

    Stay strong, biracial, black, professional Sister!

    Your field instructor is just wrong. Wrong culturally, wrong factually, and just darn impolite.

    There are lots of us professionals with natural hair, rest assured!

  4. LBell wrote:

    I wore my own natural hair in corporate America for 9 years and NEVER had a problem…and I have the very type of hair most black women run screaming from. Your field instructor is flat-out wrong. BTW…was she black?

    I’m still natural…but now I work for a university and they don’t give a damn…

  5. Liz Dwyer wrote:

    That’s her way of telling you she doesn’t think it’s professional. She’s projecting her own opinion onto your “future employers”. I wish there was some way you could sue over that.

  6. LM wrote:

    Sorry the anonymous intern had to experience this. Adding to Liz Dwyer’s point, the kind of passive-aggressive framing by the field instructor in this case could probably have been combatted even more directly.

    “Do you consider my hair to be unprofessional?”

    “No, but it may be an issue for future potential employers…”

    “Well, I am glad that you are not as feeble-minded as these future potential employers. Thank you for the warning.”

    Before you defend your position you’ve got to claim it. This may seem like a particular kind of glibness, but the offensive comments are predictable enough that it’s perfectly OK to be “scripted” in your response. If this employer is going to make this an issue, it should be as difficult as possible for her to do so, meaning she’s got to take responsibility for perpetuating such racism.

    Just my two cents.

  7. Jeremy Pierce wrote:

    Let’s take a non-racially-loaded example, say, nose rings. Many people view nose rings as unprofessional. I’m sure those who have them would want to resist that. The fact remains that many do see them as unprofessional, regardless of whether they should. In a sense, what counts as professional isn’t some absolute truth waiting in abstract entities heaven. It’s not a moral issue even. It’s actually some standard that society presents to us. What’s to stop what counts as professional from being racist-influenced? What counts as beautiful is.

    Now she may not have been the right person to say this to you, and she may have done it in an improper way, but I don’t think it’s necessarily false to point out that some people might see it as unprofessional. Someone told me that not wearing a tie to a lunch visit with some faculty who were considering me for an adjunct position was unprofessional. If I were setting the standards of what counts as professional in such a setting, I’d find that ludicrous. I had a dress shirt and dress pants on, after all. But it was deemed unprofessional, and I’m glad someone I knew who was there told me afterward.

    That’s not a case that’s as tied to my identity, and neither is the nose-ring case (at least not for most who have them), but I think any criticism of this woman might be at least a little tempered by some of these factors.

  8. Keke wrote:

    Wow. I can’t believe she would say something like that and really believe it. I’ve known many people who often acted in an UN-professional manner that didn’t have afros. So to me, it all comes down to how you are as a person. It shouldn’t have anything to do with your hair.

    Furthermore, people defining a characteristic you were born with, such as hair texture, as “unprofessional” is asinine. You shouldn’t have to change part of who you are to make others feel comfortable. If other people are uncomfortable, then it is their problem and not yours. It just saddens me that some people still feel that there is a decisive normative and anything outside that range is unacceptable.

  9. Social Work Intern wrote:

    Thank you all so much for your comments. I really do appreciate them.

  10. Sewere wrote:

    Jeremy, it’s always amusing to see how you bend logic to invalidate every racially prejudiced situation by ignoring historical origins of said prejudices and then using illogical comparisons to make them seemingly reasonable.

    Let’s take a non-racially-loaded example, say, nose rings.

    What part of this interaction was not “racially loaded” (is that your new doublespeak for racism)? How can you compare a “racially loaded” situation with a “non-racially loaded” situation when both are clearly not operating from the same central context?

    In a sense, what counts as professional isn’t some absolute truth waiting in abstract entities heaven. It’s not a moral issue even.

    You mean the same society that as projected images of Black African features as less than desirable especially those of Black African women? The society that says long flowing hair and lighter/fairer skin is better than afro, braids, dread locks and/or darker skin?

    Someone told me that not wearing a tie to a lunch visit with some faculty who were considering me for an adjunct position was unprofessional. If I were setting the standards of what counts as professional in such a setting, I’d find that ludicrous. I had a dress shirt and dress pants on, after all. But it was deemed unprofessional, and I’m glad someone I knew who was there told me afterward.

    Good one Jeremy, pray tell us again how hair compares to ties? Was Social Work Intern called for not dressing professionally? Can you please explain to me how it is that a white woman can have long hair (as long as it is kept clean) won’t face the same criticism as a black woman with an Afro? Both a long hair but grow differently, so why is one “professional” and the other not?

    Lastly, it doesn’t matter if the woman was being racist or not, what she said was racist and had a real impact on SWI. Any right thinking person faced with such an insulting violation of their person has the right to redress the situation. If for nothing else, at least it will preserve the person’s sense of integrity.
    ***************************************

    Social Work Intern,

    Much love to you and the work that you do. Other folks have given better suggestions than I can. All I can add is that I appreciate the fact that you’re pursuing such an emotionally and physically taxing career and being told part of your body isn’t up to par is a hard pill to swallow. As a successful dread-lock wearing black health professional to another, I salute you and encourage you to wear your hair as you so choose, if interviewers can’t see beyond that, that’s their loss.

  11. Jon MSW wrote:

    When these things come up, I believe the best guideline to follow is to say, “ouch,” and then educate. This is an arrangement that students (or even tenured social workers) can have with their supervisors (and with the people they are serving): that if either says something to the other that is hurtful or offensive, the response will be to literally say, “Ouch!” and then educate the other person on why that comment affected them. In this way, each agrees to potentially be the ‘teacher’ as well as the student.
    This is an especially useful approach when the supervisor and supervisee are from different cultures. As each of us is the expert on our own experience, we are each qualified to teach others about our experience. Here was an opportunity for the supervisor to learn from the student and to deepen her own cultural self-awareness and knowledge of her hidden biases.
    In this particular situation, the student tried to educate the supervisor:

    “I try every day to fight the stereotype that my natural hair is below “normal” standards.”

    But the supervisor’s response seemed to indicate she wasn’t really hearing what was being said:

    “Well, I just want you to keep in mind in your future, that when you go for an interview, your afro might not be seen as very professional, and it might jeopardize your career.”

    This statement can only be taken one of two ways: either
    A) she is saying that she considers it unprofessional and if she were doing the interviewing, she might not hire someone with an afro, in which case she might as well just say, “Oh, by the way, in case you didn’t know, I’m a racist.”
    or
    B) she is saying that the student may encounter racism in hiring interviews. (Duh!)
    Either way, the supervisor needs to do more self reflection about her own biases before she will be able to be effective in helping students around issues of race and culture.

  12. Duane wrote:

    “Either way, the supervisor needs to do more self reflection about her own biases before she will be able to be effective in helping students around issues of race and culture.”

    That’s not the supervisor’s job so far as I can tell. The supervisor’s job is to mentor the student professionally and help her to find and keep a job in her choosen career. Maybe she was simply telling her the truth. I’d rather know the truth, no matter how much it hurts, than for people in my life to just remain silent and not say a word.

  13. Duane wrote:

    “Here was an opportunity for the supervisor to learn from the student and to deepen her own cultural self-awareness and knowledge of her hidden biases.”

    Again, the supervisor is not there to have a race-related discussion with the student. The supervisor was merely pointing out that the student may encounter some future employer who will not consider her hairstyle to be professional. That’s all that she said in her reply to the student.

    I’d much rather a person come right out and be brutally honest, rather than remain silent on the matter.

  14. Angel H. wrote:

    The supervisor was merely pointing out that the student may encounter some future employer who will not consider her hairstyle to be professional. That’s all that she said in her reply to the student.

    No, the supervisor was merely exposing her own racial prejudices.

    There is absolutely no reason why a neatly coiffed afro would be considered unprofessional. The only reason I see anybody having any problems with it, is because they expect Black women to conform to the European standard of beauty, i.e. straightened hair.

    I’ve seen professional White men with thick curly, afro-like hair. I’ve also seen professional White women with bangs that were teased four inches above their foreheads. I’ve seen professional White men with long hair past their shoulders, full beards, and mustaches. And I personally know a professional White woman with hair past her waist.

    Now, please tell us Duane: Why would all of these styles be acceptable, and an afro wouldn’t?

  15. Eileen wrote:

    SWI - thanks for telling your story.

    Makes me wonder if “professionalism” in US American culture isn’t a coded set of expectations that carry racist ideas forward over and over in so many ways? (ok, I don’t wonder, it think this is the case) It is used as a cover to critique bodies and cultural values as “unprofessional” while saying covertly: “you’re not white enough.”

    What needs to be deconstructed and/or reconstructed about the “professionalism” in various professional fields (i.e. social work)? I’d like to hear other opinions.

    Thanks to those who offered helpful practical suggestions for responses in situations like SWI faced.

  16. Jondae wrote:

    I’m a African American male. I wore a fro and dreads for awhile, but I cut my hair when I moved to GA, not because of what people thought, but because it was too hot for me. I’m a professional and I work for a college in south GA. Some of the white employees looked at me strange with my hair, but I didn’t care. For one, the Fro and Dreds are apart of our culture as black people, it has nothing to do with our capabilties on the job. If an employer decide not to hire an african american due to them having a fro is discrimination to the first degree. To you Water cooler and to all the brothers and sistas out there… where ya fro if you like…be who you are, because they are going to be who they are. Peace!

  17. AE wrote:

    Firstly, what kind of Social Worker Professor is that culturally ignorant? (Nevermind, I already know!) But seriously, people never cease to amaze me with their level of cultural ignorance. It’s HAIR. It’s natural beautiful hair. And the irony is that then we as Black women are often told we care TOO much about our hair, when actuality we just are constantly dealing with it because of the racism and foolishness.

    I have worn extensions, braids and wigs, falls, switches and all manner of hair fakery in a silly attempt to be “professional”.

    I also have a Marilyn piercing.

    Guess which gives me more trouble.

    Yup, my HAIR. My hair has been source of more inappropriate discussions about “professionalism” than my facial piercings.

    I’m learning more and more to assert myself in these situations and actively inform people of how problematic they are being. most of the time it’s not worth the time but it’s usually worth the trouble.

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