We Need To Talk About Hair Anxiety For Black Women At Work

A new style can leave Black women exposed to microaggressions. It's time to cut out the racism.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

If you’re a Black woman, you’ll know how often we can change our hairstyles. We could have braids one month, a short bob one day and our natural hair the day after that. Planning hairstyles can be stressful, but it can also be fun playing around with different looks. However, that fun can be capped when you think about going into the office.

When you come into work with a new hairstyle as a Black woman, all eyes are on you – and people can be quick to share their opinions.

Comments around a new hairstyle aren’t inherently bad, but they become a problem when they go beyond curiosity and appreciation. For many Black women, a new hairstyle means inappropriate comments and microaggressions from colleagues.

This is why the experience of TikTok user @deborahalexia_ resonated with so many women online.

In the video, Deborah said one of the main reasons she quit a previous job was because of an experience she had at work relating to her hair. She explained how she would usually wear wigs at work, but one day decided to have her natural hair out. She says her change in look was met with sniggers and snide comments from colleagues.

After I shared this video on Twitter, the stories from Black women who have found themselves in a similar situation started pouring in.

“The week I wore my actual afro was hectic. The questions, the stares...” one women replied to my tweet. ”‘We didn’t realise you had so much hair’. Why is that any of your business?”

Another said: “On Monday it took me 20 minutes to decide if I wanted to wear a wig to work, ’cause I didn’t want people to even talk about my new haircut.”

Akua, a 29-year-old marketing manager from London, said she would literally sit and prepare herself for all the comments after changing her hair, so it wouldn’t affect her day as badly.

Speaking via Twitter DM, Akua, who chose not to share her surname, tells me about one incident when a colleague tried to touch her hair.

“She asked me [if she could touch my hair] and when I proceeded to say no, she said ‘I’ll get my hands on it one day!’” Akua recalls. “That was particularly triggering, because she was two levels senior to me, so I felt really uncomfortable on the spot.”

Other comments Akua has received at work include: “Can I stroke it?” “What is that?” and “You look more feminine when you have your hair long (i.e in braids)”.

“One day after two women were going back and forth over my hair, I calmly and firmly said, ‘I like my natural hair,‘” she says. “After a long pause my manager said ‘you should have been a human rights lawyer.’”

Akua says she’s definitely chosen hairstyles that make her more palatable at work and interviews in the past, but she no longer feels anxious about changing her hair. “I’ve journeyed with it for such a long time, from hair damage and hating it to now loving, caring for it and enjoying it,” she says. “I cannot let white opinions get in the way of that.”

Hair discrimination – whether that’s via inappropriate comments or professional repercussions – is sadly nothing new in the workplace. Back in 2018, HuffPost UK reported on a temp agency that turned away a Black student after calling her dreadlocks “unprofessional”.

Race-based hair discrimination has been illegal in the UK since the the Equalities Act became law in 2010, and yet it still happens. This is why MPs and campaigners are calling for textured locks to become a protected characteristic – making hair discrimination specifically illegal.

Similar laws have been passed in parts of the US. In March 2019, discrimination on the basis of hair was made illegal in California – the first US state to do so. Similar laws were soon passed in New York City, giving New Yorkers the right to “maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic or cultural identities”.

But we also need attitudes towards Black hair to change in the workplace, as well as laws.

Yewande Akeju, who is a 28-year-old project manager from London, grew up in predominantly white spaces and because of this had a weird relationship with her hair. In time though, she learned to be more confident about her hair and would often have her hair in braids at university.

She’s spent most of her career in the banking and finance industry with braids, which she says is a big statement, as most Black women in the industry wear wigs.

Similar to Deborah’s experience in the video, Akeju decided to go to work with her natural hair in an afro style one day. “Some people were saying things like ‘wow look at your hair’ but someone said ‘it looks like you’ve been electrocuted’. Then you had people giggling in the background,” she says.

“I’m embarrassed to say I smiled awkwardly and just sat down at my desk. I don’t think I ever really retaliated, which I feel bad about. I was there just smiling through the pain.”

Akeju adds that she feels sorry for younger Black women in the workplace, who have to navigate this behaviour and may not have the confidence to stand up for themselves.

Why are Black women having to endure this? The answer is simple, says therapist Dr LaNail Plummer: these comments ultimately stem from racism.

“Black women did not choose their hair type and since many of their hair types are not welcomed or labeled inappropriately, they have been batting with acceptance first with themselves and then with the world,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“So, while a coworker may just make a comment about a hair type, that same coworker does not know if he/she is opening a Pandora’s box of positive memories or negative nuances. So while it’s easy for one to say ‘well I just won’t say anything to a Black woman about her hair,’ consider the alternative – just finding something nice to say.”

If you’re feeling anxious about switching up your hair at work, this is probably based in a fear of the unknown, says Dr Plummer, who works with Onyx Therapy Group – a Black-owned and operated mental health organisation.

“Black women can experience anxious thoughts in the workplace because they can not predict what a coworker may say about them or to them,” she says. “This may occur because the workplace has not been predictable so she/he can’t assume that positivity (pure positivity, not passive-aggressive positivity) will be present.”

Dr LaNail Plummer
Dr LaNail Plummer
Dr LaNail Plummer

One reason why comments about hair can sting so much is because Black women are constantly hearing negative associations elsewhere.

“It may come from the image on TV, a description in a book, a photograph in a magazine, or simply the placement of her hair products in a smaller and totally different section of a store, compared to those who don’t have hair like hers,” says Dr Plummer.

Clearly, Black women need their co-workers to change their attitudes towards hair at work. Dr Plummer offers these tips for when you’re temped to comment on a Black woman’s hairstyle:

  • Ask a Black woman if she wants to hear a comment about her hair. It’s presumptuous to assume that everyone is ready to hear what you want to say.

  • Lead the conversations with compliments instead of questions. The questions can come later.

  • Read more about Black women and hairstyles. This way, we can have an informed and mutually beneficial conversation about your new interests.

The onus shouldn’t be on Black women to change the workplace – it should be up to non-Black people to stop making inappropriate comments on our hair.

But as Dr Plummer says: “For my sisters, I am sorry you even have to create a plan for this situation. But it is far better that we plan a healthy strategy, than to come up with an unhealthy defense.”

So if a non-Black person makes an unnecessary comment towards your hair, what should you do? Dr Plummer says:

  • Identify the problem- “_____ , I hear that you made a comment about my hair. Whether your intentions were complimentary or not, it didn’t sit well with me”.

  • Acknowledge your feelings. “In fact, it made me feel ____”. And, at this moment, you may think it’s an overreaction or a displacement but it’s really a response from having to consistently deal with comments that are unwarranted.

When I shared Deborah’s TikTok on my twitter I was taken back at how many Black women could relate to her experience, as it’s something I’ve fortunately not had to deal with. Sadly, these experiences aren’t limited to the workplace either – they usually start off in school.

Nevertheless, it’s important that Black women continue to speak out about microaggressions, especially in the workplace. Our hair is amazing and we should be able to feel comfortable having our natural hair out (or any other style) at work and anywhere else.