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.


lyric said...

I keep thinking that when my hair finally goes all grey/white, that I'm going to dye it a very bright green or purple. Then I think, I wonder if that would cause hesitation in anyone considering me for a specific church calling. I'll bet there are some rules about temple workers not having green hair.

Perhaps I'll just keep the temporary spray-on color for the special occasions.

Then again - life isn't about the hair, no matter how much we love it. Just like living the peculiar Mormon doctrine involving a prohibition against alcohol isn't (for most) really about alcohol - it's about keeping a promise made to God. The promise is the important thing.

Not sure how that applies to corporate culture, or race issues. I'm just rambling. Today I'm being very thankful for ALL the many good people in my life. And being very thankful that they all look so different, and come from different walks of life - even different countries. I'm so much richer for it!

Lindsey said...

The man in the painting is very handsome...and it's funny that you used that one because I remember commissioning it, I wanted the wedding portrait, but the current hair, not the wedding hair. I love my husband's haircut now, but people have made assumptions about him because of it, mostly assuming that he's a marine--talk about high and tight! Anyhow, it's true, the first thing you notice about anyone is their appearance. We automatically make assumptions about why the look the way they do, or at least about the portions they can control. We assume obese people are lazy gluttons. We assume very smartly dressed people in the latest style are rich. We assume that people who have mohawks and brightly colored hair have issues with authority. We assume people with mullets are rednecks or stuck in the '80s. We can't help it, and sometimes it can lead to good choices: see the big group of guys with scary tattooed on the backs of their shaved heads? walk the other way, very quickly. We make assumptions based on a variety of factors and then make a decision whether or not the assumption is correct based on the rest of our interactions with those people. Often, we find our assumptions are correct. Yes, that nicely dressed woman is rich. Yes, that tattooed man is a misanthrope trying to scare people away. So, we do have to think very carefully about our appearances and what our appearances are saying to others. But I am with Lyric. I've always wanted black hair with hot pink stripes.

uglyblackjohn said...

It's the same as "Talking White" - there is no such thing.
What is really expected is that people speak with a "Corporate Accent" (or a media accent).

(The Utes and USC are ranked so low that they may meet in a Bowl game.
Looks like neither of us can talk too much trash this year.)

Corbie said...

Loved this post. I like the way you reframed the issue - good food for thought.

Siditty said...

I will say I agree but, white people are not actually required to change the texture of their hair chemically to be deemed acceptable for the most part. I am a natural head who has worked in corporate America. I wore my hair conservatively (buns, updos, etc.), but I knew that for some, it wasn't seen as professional. I remember actually flat ironing my hair for interviews as straight hair=professional/kinky hair=unkempt. The texture of my hair alone can be deemed offensive or unprofessional no matter what kind of hair style I wear. I don't think a white person with straight, wavy, or even curly hair would be considered unprofessional if they wore their hair the way I did, because the texture of their hair would be deemed more acceptable than one with kinky/naturally textured hair.

I don't necessary think looking like George Clinton is a good way to go, but at the same time, I don't think wearing my hair like this should keep me from being considered a professional.

I've never gone for the bloodsport look, but I am sure it looked very nice on you. I did however in high school done the bob with the shaved sides. I looked classy.

OneBrownSnowPea said...

I agree with siditty to an extent. Caucasian hair hasn't been demonized to the extent that tightly-curled/kinky hair has been historically in this society.

There is a way to style natural Afro-textured hair and still be presentable. The majority of black people with locks or other natural styles don't look anything like George Clinton; that's a bad comparison for the most part. Most look like Ryan gentles (Google him) or Vanessa Williams (when she had locks) from the TV show Soul Food. Very neat, very put together.

Brohammas, I like your blog, but on this topic I feel like your just derailing the conversation. It is the classic "See what your going through isn't so bad, I go through it to!". It is not the same situation. The style of the hair does play a factor, but mostly it is about hair texture. Natural black hair cannot do the same styles as white hair without causing serious damage (ie. relaxers, pressing combs, etc.)

White-dominated society has created conventions for us all to live by, but for black people it is doubly so because these "professional" hairstyles are outside the realm of blackness. You getting your hair cut is not the same as someone having to put caustic chemicals or cut off their full head of beautiful kinky locks in order to assimilate.

brohammas said...

PEa and SId are right in that changing a style and changing a texture are different things and they are not exactly on par.
While this may change the gravity for some individuals, mostly female in this respect, it does not change the validity of the point.
The corporate world demands conformity from all no matter the race.
Black men are not asked to process their hair and part it on the side, but just like I can't have a pony tail, a black man cannot have locks.

Do not jump the gun and think I am saying things are equal, remember the last line of the post, but realize this is not as much a race issue as a corporate issue.

OneBrownSnowPea said...

It is more than a corporate issue. It is a social and racial issue.
I am not negating the validity of your points. But their is a short-sightedness to your comments.

Here's the thing...Sometimes relating to someones problems can be good, but at other times (such as now) it seems you have a lack of respect for the frustrations of black people. All your doing is belittling the topic at hand with your own issues.

Black people's blues are not like yours. Imagine how you would feel if your were upset about something and your friend turned it around and made it all about him. Let black people have the space to air out their own issues without the comparisons.

brohammas said...

SnowPea, I'm glad you are here and commenting and hope you will continue to do so.
My general premise is to increase dialogue between races... in both directions. Sometimes this creates a situation, like the one you pointed out (annoying friend making things about themself) that is more than frustrating... but it has to happen.
All discussions are in some way reactionary, so is this blog, and so was this post.
No, my blues are not your blues. But if your blues are at heart, or in any way, caused by me (the greater white 'me')than we all have to participate in the discussion together. Otherwise I never change and you stay blue.

Inversley, if you, the figurative you, don't understand where we white folk are coming from, progress will be stiffled.

The point being coroporate world forces a particular look on ALL. Yes it is a white look, but it demands conformity from all. The relevance here, which was lacking in NPR's roundtable, is that an employer frowning on a man's deadlocks is not racism at the surface any more than a white man not being allowed to have long hair. Not allowing a man to have cornrows is not racist, it is conformist. I can't have them either.
Now not allowing a woman to have locks may be another story. Women's hair is another story all together. Afro's? Depends on the size, just like white girl's bangs.

In understanding each situation, the broader perspective cannot be ignored. The fundamental issue in corperate appearance is that broad sweeping conformity... by all. Of course that makes it rife with standards that aren't fair, but it is most useful to suss out which instances apply.
example; a man on Wall Street not being allowed to have cornrows does not equal racist and mistaking it as such only sets us both back.

OneBrownSnowPea said...

Gender does play a role in this obviously. Some see any man with long hair as not masculine. Nevertheless, How do you explain the comments/discrimination black women get for locks, twists, etc.?

Pointing out discrimination does not set us back. We need to deal with the beliefs,attitudes, and stereotypes that fuel racism not attack those who point it out. (I'm not saying you attacked me personally, but I'm speaking in a collective sense.)

African based hairstyles have much more stigma attached whether on men or women.

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