African-American women reflect on their natural hair

Black college students are committing to the "Big Chop," but the decision may hurt their internship prospects.

When Keturah Raymond landed an advertising sales internship with Turner Broadcasting last summer, she wrestled with an increasingly common dilemma among young black professionals: is it okay to wear an Afro on the job?

Raymond, a newspaper and online journalism and information management and technology sophomore who is cofounder and editor-in-chief of Femme Noire, a campus publication for inclusive feminism—said she’s always worn her hair naturally. Though she ultimately opted for conservative styles like pin ups and buns during her internship, another intern confronted a black woman in the program for wearing her hair natural. The intern told the black woman that she thought the woman should straighten her hair for the presentation to look more professional. Raymond said that the intern was white.

"We were talking about policies that prevent women from wearing braids or dreadlocks—it could be an issue where, even if race isn’t mentioned explicitly, race is still an issue," said Colvin.

“I feel like it’s little things like that that make people not want to wear their hair natural in the workplace,” Raymond said.

Raymond’s and her fellow intern's experiences surrounding their hair are part of a national dialogue occurring in workplaces from the private sector to the military, over an individual’s right to cultural expression through hairstyle or fashion choices. African-Americans in particular have a rich connection between racial identity and hair tracing back to the Black Power movement, but employers often ban quintessential black hairstyles that they deem unprofessional. The son of the Utica fire chief alleged that he was subjected to a hostile work environment because he wouldn’t cut his hair. The U.S. Army only recently permitted its soldiers to wear dreadlocks.

College students are returning to these style politics, even spurring a cottage industry of black student hairdressers at SU to make the "Big Chop”—the shaving off of chemically relaxed ends to begin growing out natural hair.

Caroline Colvin, a magazine junior, said that these hair politics were discussed in her Race, Gender and the Media class.

“We were talking about policies that prevent women from wearing braids or dreadlocks—it could be an issue where, even if race isn’t mentioned explicitly, race is still an issue,” Colvin said. “You don’t have to mention, ‘Hey, this is concerning black people.’ Dreadlocks, braids—who does that affect?”

By the end of her freshman year, Colvin’s hair was entirely natural after being previously relaxed throughout middle and high school.

“If you don’t want to hire me or give me an internship because of my hair, then I can’t help you. Because at the end of the day, my hair is my identity," Colvin said. "I do take care of myself and my personal hygiene, and I think that anyone who says otherwise is being racist.” 

Dr. Meina Yates-Richard, a professor who specializes in African-American and African diaspora literature, said that the cultural centering of Eurocentric beauty standards leads to the psychological equivocating of straight hair with a polished appearance.

“Colonial domination, slavery and other historical events that have shaped the way in which we understand beauty style and acceptable representation comes to be political,” Yates-Richard said.

Throughout history, black people have returned to distinctly African heritage and cultural aesthetics by keeping their hair unprocessed. One of the main functions of the Black Power movement, as described by Dr. Yates-Richard, was the normalizing of black hair, which has seen multiple resurgences in the nation’s sociopolitical landscape. But, it may be too soon to tell what the salience of this generation’s style politics will be. “I’m not really certain if they are distinctly political in the ways in which I would mark the Black Power movement or if they are the product of this political opening and moment that frees people to say ‘I choose this’ or ‘I don’t choose this,’” Yates-Richard said.

For some, the switch to natural hair has never been politically motivated.

“I just wanted to feel comfortable in my skin and hair—just going out barefaced or with my hair natural,” said Yara Osman, international relations and citizenship and civic engagement sophomore. “Coming to college made me think about my identity as a black girl and just wanting to embrace who I am and not fitting into any particular beauty standard.”

Osman, whose extended family lives in Sudan, recalls seeing marketplaces filled with skin lightening creams. “It made me think a lot about why we have to do certain things to be considered beautiful," Osman said. 

Abigail Covington, founder and co-creator of an online publication for people of color called The New Narrative, is another woman who made the "Big Chop” during her freshman year of college after relaxing her hair during lacrosse and basketball seasons in middle and high school. Covington, sociology and writing studies, rhetoric and composition sophomore, said that although the practice did serious damage to her hair in the past, she straightened it for the first day of her internship at Edelman, a communications marketing firm.

But, her hesitance didn’t last long. On the third day of her internship, she saw another woman with a full Afro, who sat at the top of the meeting table. Covington said the other workers seemed engaged in that woman. Covington later had a conversation with her, who said she felt safe to keep her hair natural because of Edelman’s openness.

“I think that environment just spurred that individuality and celebration of personal heritage. But I don’t know if the same thing could be said if I were somewhere else,” Covington said. 

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