Help! My Boss Thinks All Black Hairstyles Are Unprofessional

Race Manners: It’s not your job to tell your boss he’s racist. But you can clue him in that his standard threatens to run afoul of everything from modern style to the law.

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Dear Race Manners:

I’m a store manager for a major national clothing retailer. Several of my employees are African-American women who wear their hair in a variety of styles—Bantu knots, twist-outs, Afros, Marley braids. I think they look great and have no problem with them (I’m black). But the last few times my regional manager (white) has made appearances at my store, he’s commented that my employees’ hair could be neater and more professional.

It seems to me that his focus on our high-fashion brand’s image involves standards that are unfair to my black employees. At the same time, he’s my boss, so I can’t just come out and tell him he’s racist. Is there anything I can say that wouldn’t be insubordinate but might change his thinking on this? If not, what’s the best way to respond? —Resisting Retail Racism

So your boss’s take is that the styles that make the most sense for black hair are inherently less professional than the styles that make the most sense for white hair. That, as you know, is a problem.

It’s rooted in the idea that what works for white people is normal and ideal and should be approximated by everyone. Aka white supremacy. Aka racism.

That’s old news. But it’s also news, no matter how old it is, that is met with a lot of resistance from the out-of-touch but also very sincere members of the “If black people would just do everything exactly the way white people do, even when it physically doesn’t make sense for them” camp. A lot of people of all races and ages are deeply attached to the idea of whiteness as the default, the gold standard, the norm and the baseline against which everything else, whether cultural or physical, should be measured.

Discussions about hair make for some of the best laboratories to observe how unfair these views are. That’s because there is simply no denying that it takes a concerted effort and a lot of time and work—maybe even dangerous chemicals—to get most black people’s hair to approximate the way most white people’s hair looks with very little effort.

Hair that belongs to people who identify as black also tends to be more delicate, leading many to choose protective styles that, yes, look different from the styles often chosen by those whose hair cuticles are different shapes. That’s to say nothing of historical and cultural preferences and options for personal expression that people should be allowed to have.

This was recently illustrated by the national debate about how the United States military’s restrictions on hairstyles affected black women’s options. Those who made and defended the rules were basically like, “What? We made the same rules for everyone!” Exactly. You made the same rules for everyone, and not everyone has the same hair. The women of the Congressional Black Caucus intervened in a letter, saying, “The lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent.”

Your manager could use the same message. But the good news is that you don’t have to deliver that directly, or even arrange for a CBC member or bell hooks (pdf) to just happen to be trying on blazers and strike up a conversation with your manager the next time he does his walk-through.