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.
Chances are—and maybe I’m just getting a little cynical here—you won’t convince him that his opinions on hair are fueled by racism if he’s not interested in being convinced. Evidently, the new thing is that no one—even those who openly say the most racist things you can imagine—sees him- or herself as racist (even Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling). So I wouldn’t feel comfortable advising you to try to teach this guy anything about the inner workings of his own mind.
What I do think you can do is tap into his evident interest in fashion, style and image. Is there a way to suggest to him that the limitations he’s placing on black women’s hair are out of touch in these areas? After all, this isn’t 1954; it’s 2014. Has he been living under a rock? (Don’t ask him that—maybe just point to how much your employees’ styles are on trend and reflect what your customers see more and more in fashion magazines, on TV and even on runways.)
The phrase “natural-hair revolution” is perhaps a little overused, but it was named that way for a reason. What your manager sees as unkempt is, in fact, just contemporary. And more than just being acceptable, these styles might make your employees-–and the clothes they’re wearing—look better and more appealing to customers.
Also, definitely express your concerns (depending on your comfort level and the protocol, either to him or to him and someone higher up) about the legality of a potential racial crackdown on hairstyles. Maybe hand over a copy of this case or the many like it as a gentle warning. And by all means, don’t enforce his preferences yourself. The last thing you want is to be named in a race-discrimination lawsuit, so do what you need to do to make it clear that you’re uncomfortable—from both a moral and a legal perspective—putting his out-of-touch and unfair opinions about hair into action.
The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “Donald Sterling vs. Systemic Racism: It’s OK, We Can Talk About Both”