Now, you might think that wearing my natural hair to work would be a simple and natural choice. But for some reason, it can be seen as messy, distracting, or unprofessional. It’s frustrating because I believe I should be able to embrace my natural hair without judgment. However, existing in Corporate America as a person of color often requires investing a significant amount of money, approximately $3,500 annually, into haircare just to meet the expectations imposed on us.
To address this issue, the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act was passed in March 2022. It aimed to prohibit race-based hair discrimination, including the denial of employment and educational opportunities based on hair texture or protective hairstyles. While this was a step in the right direction, the fear of being viewed as “unprofessional” because of my hair is not the only reaction that haunts me. There’s another kind of unsolicited attention that can be incredibly uncomfortable.
Let me share an incident from my mid-20s when I decided to wear hip-length knotless box braids to work. It felt like the entire company had a collective meltdown.
Box braids are a classic and versatile hairstyle that I adore. They are low-maintenance, timeless, and can be styled in various lengths, colors, and thicknesses. They’re especially perfect for the summer season. So, when the warm weather arrived early in New York City, I found myself in Harlem, where braiding salons are abundant. As I stared at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t help but wonder if one of my colleagues would have something socially awkward to say about my hairstyle once again.
However, despite being the only Black person in my workplace, diversity was supposedly valued highly. We even signed a diversity manifesto upon joining the fashion brand I worked for. This was a new job for me after spending five years as an Executive Assistant in a formal work environment, where wearing braids would have been considered inappropriate. Wearing braids in an all-white finance office would have felt like wearing a revealing swimsuit to a funeral—completely out of place. So, instead, I opted for a mid-back, straight sew-in hairstyle that was perceived as non-threatening.
But in this new office, known for its trendiness and fashion-forward atmosphere, I thought people would understand and appreciate my choice to wear braids. Little did I know that when I passed by my white boss one morning, her face expressed sheer confusion.
You would think that people could easily understand hair extensions. When your hair is short one day and long the next, there’s no other explanation necessary—it’s obviously extensions. But my boss’s confusion quickly transformed into excitement, resembling the awe-filled wonderment of a puppy discovering a pile of freshly raked leaves. She eagerly asked if I had time later to explain more about my hair. At that moment, I wasn’t sure if it was a joke because, honestly, what more was there to tell? I got braids; it’s not like I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Sandals Jamaica.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to give a detailed breakdown of the most common protective hairstyle at 7:41 a.m. on a weekday, but I decided to go with the flow and see where the conversation would lead.
“Firstly, and with all due respect since you’re my boss, yes, I did have a shoulder-length haircut on Tuesday and ass-length braids the next day. And yes, these are extensions, as the term suggests. Done. Whose hair is it? Unclear. I apologize if I didn’t provide this information during my interviews, but I genuinely didn’t expect it to come up so soon, or at all, for that matter.”
I couldn’t help but wonder why she was asking these questions now when she had already seen me with braids for four days. Oh, it was because my braids were in a bun on Tuesday and Wednesday, and today they’re in a ponytail? Well, that’s simply because I styled them differently each day. I hope that clears things up.
“How do I wash my hair?” Now, that’s a work-appropriate question, and I’m happy to answer. Sometimes I use Windex, and other times it’s Fantastico—it really depends on my mood. After that, it’s just a regular blow-dry job. You know, using my white boyfriend’s hot breath, as I jokingly mentioned.
“How often do I wash my hair?” Well, how often do you do your laundry? How often do you wear a bra without washing it? How often do you shower? Do you have a full body wash every time? Do you wash your hands before your body? Do you wipe from front to back? What’s your favorite brand of tampon? Does the carpet match the drapes? It seems like it’s about time we have an open discussion about these topics!
Oops! Wait a second, the volume on our Upbeat Lofi Spotify Office playlist is a bit low. Mind if I fully pause it? I noticed that 75 percent of our 40-person office is now listening in on our conversation. Thirty adults awkwardly hearing me explain terms like “edges” and “kitchen” would make it fairer if we could involve everyone. You’re asking some interesting questions, and everyone deserves to know the answers.
At this point, I couldn’t help but feel singled out and triggered by the entire interaction. It reminded me of childhood pool parties and summer barbecues in Texas, where all the white girls would recklessly jump into the chlorine pool without wearing a proper swim cap to protect their hair. I, on the other hand, would never dare to do something so risky. And yes, my brown latex cap did make me resemble a certain male body part, which led to a lot of questions.
I would try to explain that chlorine causes my hair to break, which sparked confusion and amusement every time the question was asked—coincidentally, every time we were at the pool. When I redirected their inquiries to my mother, she would respond, “Well, did you ask why their hair doesn’t break?” It was a valid question that never seemed to come up.
After spending an exhausting yet fulfilling day teaching physics to my enthusiastic group of third-grade friends, we would gather in an outdoor shower to rinse off before refueling with Lunchables. They would laugh and pass around bottles of shampoo and conditioner packed neatly in a Vineyard Vines bag, courtesy of someone’s mom. But when the bottles reached me, I would politely decline. My chemically relaxed hair required something more specific.
“Oh, your shampoo and conditioner are in the shape of a smiling strawberry, smell like sugar, and have cute names? That’s adorable! Mine come in a gray bottle, with a thick blend of chemicals, and the word ‘bicarbonate’ in the name!” And just like that, another impromptu lesson on Black hair care would begin.
If I could offer words of encouragement to my 8-year-old self, I would say, “Firstly, you don’t look like a certain male body part. You’re adorable, and one day, you’ll grow into a stunning individual. Secondly, your hair requires extra care because it’s not easy to maintain its flawlessness. Lastly, being emotionally prodded over trivial things about yourself is sadly a rite of passage. So, congratulations! You’ve just received another punch on your ‘Black Card.’ I recommend preparing some go-to elevator speeches for moments like these because they will happen again and again—for the rest of your life.”
My advice to those wondering how to act appropriately is simple: don’t make it weird. A question or two is acceptable if we have a personal relationship, but just treat me like any other regular person. When I was younger, these encounters used to deeply affect me, leading me to implode emotionally. However, today, I’m not outwardly offended by these microaggressions; I’m just exhausted. On the other hand, my mother always reminds me, “Your response is your responsibility.” We can only control ourselves.
So, in the end, I politely answered my boss’s questions for about 20 seconds before playfully suggesting that she should visit Harlem and get her own set of braids since she seemed so fascinated by them. She laughed, but her laughter faded as I dryly added, “No, seriously.”
Ultimately, she decided against it.