Saturday, November 21, 2009

Corporate Hair

“Good hair”
Some things have racial aspects but aren’t racist at the root.
I have listened to conversations about hair, grooming, and corporate dress that seam to miss something. The conversation lacks completeness. Lacks perspective.

Chris Rock has a movie about it (not just this but touching on it), I have heard two NPR roundtables on the subject, and read countless articles on the subject. None of them really got to the heart of the matter. They could have talked for hours and still never gotten there. They would never get there because they were headed the wrong direction. The discussion was really one sided. It was black sided.

It was all about black hair in the professional world.

They all talk about what is or isn’t accepted. They talked all about how African hair is frowned upon, rejected, forced to change. There was talk of how woman must have processed hair, afros and braids are outlawed, and heaven forbid someone have dreadlocks. They talked about the implications. They talked about cultural differences and the history of rejection of all things culturally black or African. Some were upset at the system, some were less so, but most all attributed it to race. They lamented that in the corporate world, one must dress and look, white.

My Dad and I had one repeating disagreement throughout my youth. One thing that never seamed to resolve, one wedge between us.

My hair.

In fourth grade everyone had a rat tail and shaved stripes like Brian Bozworth. I just wanted the tail. Dad said “no”. I would let the back grow out till it curled up around my neck and ears, then Dad, after arguing with my Mom and sisters, would drag me to the barber and turn me into a Marine. If you let a “high and tight” grow for about six months you have a nice preppy comb over, then shave off the sides and you have a respectable new wave, skater, do. Dad hated it.

By high school I pushed a little more. I liked the top long. Not hippie long, just to my chin. I kept the sides shaved. Dad thought it looked like someone grabbed me by the hair and stretched my head till my ears lowered five inches. Another adult said I looked like Bert from Sesame Street. I loved my hair.
Once, during my sophomore year, I actually hid in my locker (oversized football lockers) while the seniors, clippers in hand, looked all over asking, “where is the kid with the surfer hair?”
Before senior year coach asked us all to make a sacrifice to show our dedication to the team. He asked us to sacrifice our hair. My best friend, who had hair half way down his back, and I were distraught. What would we do? We found the answer in a Van Dame movie, “Bloodsport”. The bad guy looked awesome and we decided we would too.

We went with the team to make the sacrifice and both came out with shaved heads; except for a long tail from the crown of our heads. I was thinking tough guy kickboxer but in retrospect looked more Hare Krishna.
Dad was inconsolable.

To Dad’s credit he never said “because I said so.” He always explained. He explained a lot. I can’t count how many discussions started with, “I’ve been teaching for 30 years…”
Dad explained that people always make assumptions about people by how they look. He said kids always group together with similar styled kids. While he did not teach at the school I attended, he said he knew the type of kids who looked like me. He did not approve.
He told me he did not think my style meant I was bad. He expressed fear that others would not take the time to know me but simply make assumptions by looking at me and treat me accordingly. He was afraid that if everyone treated me like one of the bad kids, I would eventually start living up to their expectations.

Most importantly he worried that I loved my hair so much, and really I did. He worried about me serving a mission. In my religion serving a two year mission is more than a right of passage, it’s a religious responsibility. Every young man is expected to live worthily and serve. Missionary’s have strict grooming standards… especially concerning hair. While officially representing the church one is required to appear in the most culturally accepted, and wholesome, way possible. No bloodsport tails.

He worried my love for my locks would give me pause. He worried that this pause would grow into something more.
It didn’t.

Years later I was working in sales. I covered a $4,000,000 territory and would regularly present to purchasing boards, followed by a presentation to a team of janitors.
I remembered what my dad taught me and updated the lesson. I would regularly start the day in a nice dark colored suit, complete with conservative tie and cuff links. After the PowerPoint I would quickly loose the jacket and tie, roll up my sleeves, and rub the gel out of my hair.
How the different audiences saw me directly affected my sales results.

Back to the original subject.
The corporate look is in deed a white look. But make no mistake, it is not THE white look.
What all these African-American commentators and experts failed to recognize and acknowledge is that corporate culture is not only forcing black people to look a different way, but is also forcing other whites to look a certain way.
When I walked into the professional world I sacrificed a little part of who I am, a little part of my soul. Someone else dictated how I looked, what I did with my time, and even what I would drive. In return I got a check and insurance.

Some things have racial aspects, but are really not racial issues.