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Launching a DEI Initiative? Don’t Forget About Hair

By Desi Carson, IDEAS Development Partner at Inclusion NextWork and Business Manager at PsychoHairapy




Why does hair matter in the workplace?

Short answer: because people matter, and hair matters to people. A bad hair day for one person is not the same as a bad hair day for another. Historically, Black and Brown folx experience significant discrimination related to physical appearance, and more specifically hair, in the workplace.


A bad hair day for one person is not the same as a bad hair day for another. Historically, Black and Brown folx experience significant discrimination related to physical appearance, specifically hair, in the workplace.

Movements like The CROWN Act actively work to ban discrimination against race-based hairstyles in the workplace and in hiring practices. Any form of discrimination in the workplace automatically bears consideration when launching or maintaining any type of DEI initiative. Our extensive research through PsychoHairapy has found significant need for hair trauma protection in the workplace, as well as giving language to the often-overlooked stories that affect countless lives across the globe.


The biggest buzzword regarding hair discrimination in the workplace is microaggressions — described eloquently in this Ted Talk by Tiffany Alvoid. A microaggression is “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a group that has experienced systemic marginalization such as a racial or ethnic minority.” People of color in primarily white workplaces often endure a milieu of microaggressions over their tenure but don’t often bring it up with their manager or HR because of 1) fear of retaliation, 2) the unlikely chance of anyone being held accountable, or 3) they’re tired and it no longer feels worth the effort.


Now, what does this have to do with DEI?

If any of your employees do not feel a sense of belonging, it falls under DEI. If any of your employees experience harassment, it falls under DEI. If any of your employees experience tokenization or isolation, it falls under DEI. If any of your employees perpetuate discrimination at any level, it falls under DEI.


At its core, diversity, equity and inclusion work is successful when employees are able to bring their full, authentic selves into the workplace, have equitable access to opportunities, and are not only safe to express the entirety of their identities as they so choose but also be valued for those identities. One’s identity manifests in their self-expression, and hair expression is an important part of that. Just as any given individual may have experienced an unspoken trauma or may hold an invisible identity, so too can they just as likely have had an unsaid and deeply impactful hair trauma that can get triggered by ignorant verbalizations like “Can I touch your hair?” (coded message: you are exotic and here for my exploration regardless of infringements on personal space) or “I like your straight hair better.” (coded message: white standards of beauty are superior).


Hair trauma and other discrimination against self-expression may seem “small” in comparison to other aspects of DEI, but it touches every facet of DEI work that exists. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve been told directly that my locs are unprofessional and have been left out of opportunities with executive clients because of the way I present. I’ve had coworkers touch and pull on my hair to find out if it was “real” or not.


Hair trauma and other discrimination against self-expression may seem 'small' in comparison to other aspects of DEI, but it touches every facet of DEI work that exists.

I’ve had a boss make jokes about my hair being like a “mop” in referencing to saving money on cleaning services for the building. The layers of discrimination in that incident alone should have been enough to mark its wrongness, but they continued along like nothing happened.

This is only a fraction of my and other people of color’s experiences of hair trauma both in the workplace and outside of it. Sure, everyone can have a bad hair day, and hair trauma itself has a spectrum of severity that is not limited to race, but it is critical to acknowledge and recognize the oppressive, white supremacist and patriarchal influences that create these hair trauma instances in the first place.


Hair trauma has a spectrum of severity not limited to race, but it's critical to recognize the oppressive, white supremacist and patriarchal influences that create these hair trauma instances in the first place.

Existing standards of professional hairstyles and standards of professionalism itself are inherently race-based perceptions that derive from and perpetuate white supremacy. The national reckoning with racial injustice in 2020 has created an imperative when it comes to accountability and incorporating DEI into the DNA of any given organization. Combatting hair discrimination and redefining professionalism are just part of the many essential DEI considerations that lead to a culture of belonging, trust and uplifting voices from systemically marginalized communities.


Existing standards of professional hairstyles and standards of professionalism itself are inherently race-based perceptions that derive from and perpetuate white supremacy.

At PsychoHairapy, we not only conduct leading research on the relationship between hair, self-esteem, wellness and discrimination; we also teach and certify organizations to properly address this important component of the human experience, especially for people of color. Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka is the Psychology Department Head and a Professor at the University of the District of Columbia as well as the Founder of PsychoHairapy and a Hair Historian. Our work’s mission is to lead the fight for equitable access to mental health care for people of color through salons and barbershops as well as through other organizations. The topics we cover include but are not limited to the psychological significance and need for hair trauma protection in the workplace and beyond, narratives of hair bias in schools, self-care messaging by Black natural hair care vloggers, mother-daughter hair stories and racial socialization, and more. We are just one muscle in the body of DEI work and it is all our collective responsibility to play our part in it.


So, why does hair matter in the workplace?

It matters because you matter, I matter, they matter. Our future matters. No part of ourselves should be left behind.

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