Whether you go natural, use chemicals or rock a weave, hair is always a contentious issue in the black community. Some friends and I were told by a black teacher with chemically straightened hair that our own, natural hair looked "untidy". A few black male friends of mine have cut their hair because they don't feel they can get a professional job with an afro or canerows. My aunt's friends take the piss out of her dreadlocks because they say she looks like she goes to spoken word nights, and another friend of mine was told she'd have to leave her job at a pretty big London department store if she didn't straighten her mane.
Is the afro only for divas in blaxploitation films and middle-aged men who black up, pretend to be a young Michael Jackson and offend everyone on Halloween? Or could a politician, a banker or a lawyer conceivably wear their hair naturally in an afro while they're at work?
You don't see it much, but is that because of some ingrained, bigoted ideal of what hair is "suitable" in a professional workplace, or just because it takes a huge amount of effort to keep natural afro hair looking healthy as well as stylish?
People of London, have you ever been made to feel that your afro is unprofessional?
Isaac: Yeah, actually – they weren't keen on it when I was in sixth form. They said it was untidy, even though it's perfectly round.
VICE: It is perfectly round. Did they make you change your hair?
No, I think they just sort of gave up because, technically, it complied with school rules. Boy's hair was fine as long as it didn't touch your collar, but my hair goes up and out, not down.
Clever. So do you think your afro is suitable for a professional workplace?
Yeah, why not? It doesn't affect the way I work and it's never messy when I'm out. The only reason that question even comes up is ‘cause people aren't used to seeing afros all the time.
Winsome: No, I've never been made to feel like that. Although, my hair is becoming a bit like Brillo – it's so tough and hard to manage. I've used relaxers and chemicals since I was young, but I've stopped in the last year or so, which has made it really thick and unmanageable.
Do you ever get negative comments about your natural hair?
No, just positive comments. I'd definitely be happier with it myself if it was a bit softer, though.
Would you prefer your hair to be straight?
Not straight, just soft. The problem is manageability more than anything. I don't mind whether it's curly, straight or in an afro, but, if I had to choose, I suppose I'd choose straight.
Safiya: Yeah, I have sometimes. Like, in the guidelines for work, it says that hair should be tied back with no hairs out of place, which is pretty hard to achieve with an afro. Also, because it's taboo for someone to tell you your afro is messy for fear of looking racist, you can never tell if it's properly deemed as unprofessional. So, instead of being directly told, you just get a disapproving glance.
What do people say about your hair at work?
People tell me my hair is really "funky" or "interesting", which doesn’t really fit into a business or professional category. Also, I'm the only one in my workplace with natural hair, or even curly hair of any kind, so I stick out among the straight, European ponytails. I've never been made to feel so uncomfortable that I'd want to change my hairstyle or use chemicals or anything, though.
You wouldn't want straight hair?
No, I personally think a bad weave is far less professional looking than an afro.
I dunno – I'm sure there's some place you could get a customised business weave.
Yohance: No, I've always found having an afro quite normal while I've been at work. The last place was a card shop where I mainly catered to people of African descent, so I suppose it's more normal in that situation.
Have you ever had any negative comments about your hair?
No, they're always positive. People come up to me in the street and ask to touch my hair and stuff, but they never say anything negative.
Why do you think there aren’t so many people with natural hair in professional working environments?
It's a personal thing – people think they'll look untidy – but I’ve never heard anyone say "You can’t have that kind of hairstyle in that kind of job." The only limitation I’ve seen was when I was looking at a job at Legoland that said you couldn't have gel in your hair or dreadlocks, but that's not specific to black people. I think there are more white people with locks at my uni than black people.
Teju: I used to have huge, kinky twists and I went to a careers event, asked for advice and the woman eyed my braids, raised her brows and emphasised the importance of good presentation. To be fair, my hair was pretty messy, so I don’t think it was a racial thing. Now I have locks and my mum’s always nagging me to get a weave or go back to relaxing my hair so that I look more “normal”, which is a very odd, dangerous and slightly sad word to use.
Why does your mum think that?
According to her, in Nigeria, only crazy bush people rock locks. Also, I know that people do have stereotyped ideas associated with dreads.
So why do you think people have a problem with natural hair?
I haven’t found natural hair to be a problem, really. It's more about how well you maintain it. If your hair is nappy, dry and dirty, don't expect folks to overlook it, but that's probably the same for all hair types, right? Although, I'd imagine it makes a bigger difference when you get into more corporate industries and dress codes are more formal.
Daryl: I haven't personally, but I do feel like it's very uncommon to see natural afro hair in the media. There aren't many people brave enough to wear their afro hair naturally.
Do you think there's a specific reason we don’t see it in the media?
Yeah, there are two main reasons: there's a lack of knowledge about how to properly maintain natural afro hair, and there are countless new hairstyles emerging every day, meaning people have a load more options of what to do with their hair. Everyone wants beautiful hair, but they aren't always prepared to use their often unmanageable natural afro hair to achieve that.
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