One must properly prepare to reenter the workforce after a year and a half of graduate school and nearly two years of freelancing. In today’s technologically advanced world where almost anything can be found with keywords via a quick Google search, and the existence of Social Intelligence, a start-up company hired to conduct “social media background checks” on prospective employers, it’s crucial to present the best of yourself on the World Wide Web.
Midway into my yearlong freelance grind (otherwise known as unemployment), I decided to make sure there was nothing that could possibly sabotage my chances of a golden opportunity. I stopped approving random people on Facebook that I didn’t know and those with whom I shared no mutual “friends.” My Facebook page was never appalling, but I tightened it up a bit. It needed to be as professional as possible while still being a social media outlet I could connect with friends and family, promote my articles and post information I found interesting. In addition, my once public Twitter page was made private and remained so for many months.
Along with my presentation on social media, I also worried how the articles I had penned would be perceived. And then there was the natural hair conundrum. Would I be able to get a job with natural hair? Will corporate America assume I’m making some type of political statement? Is natural hair professional? Professional women reassured me I’d be fine. Besides, they asked, “Would I really want to work for a company where I’d have to alter my hair from the state it grows out of my scalp? No, I wouldn’t. But this is real life, and there are bills to be paid.
After a year of trying to fit this perfect “hirable” prospective employee, I decided to do something for myself. I dyed the front half of my natural ‘fro honey blonde. I loved it. It added a much needed flare to my look that I was growing bored with daily.
I have been dying my hair faithfully since I was 14-years-old. You would be hard pressed to see me with jet-black hair. I toyed with the idea the entire summer and had concluded I’d wait until I had landed that salary position. As summer was coming to a close I was bored to death with my jet-black look and decided to go for it.
A few weeks ago I was chatting one-on-one with a woman in an online group I am a part of. She told me about a temp agency in NYC that had been helpful with temporary assignments. Days later I met with Stacey, a Talent Consultant for the company. She was bubbly and helpful. Before I left her office she introduced me to Sue, a Senior Talent Consultant with the company. Sue and I chatted a bit about being journalists and how she left the field many moons ago. She promised to contact me about working the US Polo event sponsored by Polo Ralph Lauren.
As promised, Sue emailed me a couple days later about working the US Polo event that would last two weeks. On August 2, at 6:00 p.m. I met with Sue and a group of other women to fill out paperwork for the event. I walked into the conference room in good spirits. I smiled and made small talk with the other woman who would be my temporary co-workers in a few weeks. I was not a die-hard tennis fan, admittedly, no one in the room was. But I was open for new experiences. Plus, the money was incentive enough for me.
Before we lined up to have our photos taken for our credential badges the topic of grooming arose. Sue emphasized how important it was for us to look “pretty” in the photo. She bragged in a reassuring way that the photos would be photoshopped to perfection before being sent to PRL. It was a tad off-putting how much emphasis she put on the aesthetic for a photograph for a badge. I’d wondered if she’d done the same with the guys.
When Sue noticed two women’s nose rings she decided to go over the appearance don’ts of PRL’s policy. Per Sue, PRL had a policy of no facial piercings, no visible tattoos and the facial hair grooming required of the men. Fair enough. What was unexpected was PRL also had strict requirements for one’s hair.
Ironically, the other woman of color and I sat next to one another at the conference table. We both wore our naturally curly hair, and we both had blonde hair in the front and black in the back. I loved both of our two-tone looks.
Without any warning Sue blurted:
“Jasmine and Bené, you’re going to have to do something about your hair.”
“It’s policy,” she continued. “I don’t mean to offend, but Polo Ralph Lauren’s policy is your hair has to be all one color.”
“What did you do to your hair anyway Bené?” she queried.
I wanted to say, “Obviously I dyed it,” but instead just stared since she knew the answer to her own question.
“The last time I saw you it wasn’t like that,” she said.
All of the other women, who were white, were now focused on Jasmine and I. Honestly, they looked as uncomfortable as we were after Sue’s outburst. They smiled as an attempt to ease the tension, but their eyes remained focused on our hair. I can’t remember a time I had felt as uncomfortable as I did in that moment. I did not expect for my hair to become a sideshow in a professional setting. I would think that as a Senior Talent Consultant who had done this type of work for many years, she would have the common sense to pull us to the side after the meeting.
The remainder of the meeting there was a thick tension floating through the room. Sue talked as we listened attentively. I knew from the moment she announced PRL’s policy I would not be dying my hair to work a $12 event for two weeks. But, alas, I stayed as to at least remain professional, something Sue could take a few lessons on.
In that moment I thought of Edward Said and his philosophy of “The Other.”
Near the end of the meeting Sue continued to put her foot in her mouth. One woman with long hair asked, “Do we have to pull our hair back?” For Sue the question was an open invitation to continue on about the texture of her own hair being “like a mop,” and how she “spends hours straightening it.” If only she would have stopped talking.
“Bené, my texture is fluffy like yours,” she said, stumbling to find a word and eventually settled for fluffy. “Do you wear a head band?” I couldn’t believe she was continuing on in this matter in front of a room full of people.
“No,” I replied sternly without a smile. I didn’t want her for a second to believe her behavior was acceptable.
“Seriously, could you show me how you do that?”
“No, I want you to show me how you get your hair to look beautiful like that with that texture. How do you get it pulled back like that?”
“I use bobby pins,” I said now obviously irritated.
I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of that office and on the train where I could write. Unfortunately, she had more to say.
After seeing she had made a huge mistake and I wasn’t in the least bit amused, she asked me to have a seat and talk with her one-on-one once the meeting had concluded.
“I want to profusely apologize,” Sue said. “I am so so so sorry. I typically never do anything like that, and would have pulled you to the side. But since there were two of you sitting right next to each other I just went ahead and said something.”
I nodded my head as she spoke debating on whether to educate her or let the post I was going to write serve as her education.
“I cannot apologize enough for how sorry I am. I shouldn’t have done that. But it is what it is. And the no two toned hair rule is just like the men having to shave,” she said.
Actually, it’s not.
“I don’t know if you want to dye it all blonde or all black. You can choose, but just pick one. Both look great on you,” she said as a failed attempt to smooth things over from hear earlier inappropriate loose lips.
“Thank you,” I replied.
She went on about how I could wait until training to see what the PRL managers would say. She talked about last year’s events and how she totally understood if I emailed her the next day saying I didn’t want to work the event.
As a journalist I had one more question for clarity. “So is this Polo Ralph Lauren’s policy or a third party?” I asked.
“Oh this is Polo Ralph Lauren’s policy,” she replied. “It would be the same if you worked in any of his stores.”
It was rather ironic that here I was being treated like “The Other” due to my hair texture and Ralph Lauren, born Ralph Lifshitz to Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, NY, legally changed his last name for disputable reasons. Perhaps to be accepted in the fashion industry.
As I got up to leave she made more small talk, I nodded, forced a fake smile and almost skipped through the doors.
I think PRL’s hair policy is ridiculous although not uncommon. However, it wasn’t the policies of PRL that caused Sue to behave in such an unprofessional manner. I find it incredibly offensive and racially insensitive to discuss the texture of a black woman’s hair in a meeting. Furthermore, what is to be implied by her referring to my hair as “fluffy” and her own hair being similar, which she described as being “like a mop?”
Black women’s hair has been controversial for decades. During the Black Power Movement and the burgeoning of the Black Panther Party, the afro was a way for black men and women to showcase their pride in being black. Much of white America considered the afro a political statement. In 1971 Melba Tolliver, a reporter for WABC-TV wore an afro on air and was threatened to be taken off the air. In 1981 KGC-TV, an ABC affiliate, suspended reporter Dorothy Reed for wearing her hair in cornrows with beads on air. The company and Reed reached an agreement after two weeks and NAACP protests. Reed was paid her lost salary for the time of her suspension and returned back to work with the braids sans the beads. In 2007 a Glamour magazine editor made a comment in a presentation about black women wearing locs and afros saying, “These political hairstyles really have to go.” In the same year Don Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos” live on radio. I could go on and on with examples of black women’s hair being ridiculed and unaccepted by mainstream.
Black hair’s history and its criticism is why Sue’s comments were inappropriate. Her comments are why I couldn’t help feeling like “the other” as my hair was made a spectacle of in a room full of white women.
What I pondered was: if two white women had black and blonde hair, or brunette and black hair, would it have posed an issue? Would it have been addressed in the same careless way? The answer to those questions are obvious.
I am not against grooming policies. I think they are like dress codes in the sense that they are necessary for those who don’t understand the meaning of work appropriate. But what I am against is women of color being singled out for the hair texture. Being gawked at like an animal in a zoo is not something any human being should be subjected to.
I thought about sending PRL an email in regards to what transpired. I spoke to a friend who knows a few people who work in the corporate office for the company. He reassured me it would be pointless contacting them, and they wouldn’t care. I also rolled around my head the idea of contacting Sue’s superior at the temp agency. When I vented on Twitter one of my brilliant Afro-Latina sisters challenged me. She felt it was my duty to educate Sue in an attempt to prevent anything like this from happening to another black woman. I chose to write instead.
So thank you Polo Ralph Lauren, thank you corporate America. And thank you, Sue. You solidified my feelings on how imperative entrepreneurship is for people of color, in particularly blacks. If you, corporate America, don’t hate everything about my personhood, you sure have a hell of a way of showing it.
*All names have been changed to protect the guilty and innocent.