Natural Hair in the Workplace: Academic Edition

August 9, 2011 Oyibo Princess

This is a continuation of the Natural Hair in the Workplace Series.  This series focuses on women who work on college campuses. One might think that college campuses (at least some) would be more liberal in terms of hair styles.  But as you may see soon that is not always the case and the criticism may come from those some would least expect. I interviewed two women JeNell LaRue, Coordinator of Counseling Services at Gwynedd-Mercy College, a Catholic University in Pennsylvannia, and Ebony McNeal, am English Graduate Instructor at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) a public research university in Oxford, Mississippi.

  1. Name: JeNell LaRue
  2. Education level: I attended Gwynedd-Mercy College and hold two degrees from the institution: a Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2004) and a Master of Science in School Counseling (2008).
  3. What is the company/organization/agency for which you work? Gwynedd-Mercy College Upward Bound
  4. What is your position? Coordinator of Counseling Services
  5. How long have you been working there? 3 years with Upward Bound, 7 years at the college total.
  6. How long have you been natural? I stopped relaxing my hair in 2007, but continued straightening and wearing protective styles. I started wearing my hair in it’s natural state in January 2011.
  7. How did you wear your hair for the interview for this position? It was straightened, but had curls.
  8. Have you ever worn your hair in a natural style for any job interview? If so, for what position of what company and what where the results of the interview? No, I decided to go totally natural while in my current position.
  9. Do you wear your hair in natural styles in the work place? Yes!!!
  10. If so, have you faced any conflict because of it? Any praise? I get so much praise from everyone, especially my white and African colleagues. My Black colleagues like it for the most part, but some are more traditional and like my hair straightened.
  11. What is your favorite hairstyle to wear to work? Depends on what I’m doing. I wear it out, or one side up, in a french twist, with a head band, or in twists.

12. What hair styles, if any, are considered inappropriate in the work place? Anything that doesn’t look neat and clean. We try to use our individual discretion.

13. Have you noticed any other black women working for the same company or organization as you? If so, how do they wear their hair? Our VP is natural, and she wears a short cut. Other Black women on campus may not relax their hair, but it’s still in a straightened style, or weave.

14. Do you find it difficult to take care of your hair now that you are working for this company or organization? Not at all! It actually became much easier to maintain.

15. Do you have any advice for professional women who want to go natural or natural girls who want to go professional (are entering the workforce)? Since going natural, I have noticed that my students have been more receptive to asking questions about natural hair care, and some have even garnered the courage to go natural themselves! Even a few of my white colleagues have natural hair discussions with me regarding their own natural curl pattern. She stopped straightening her hair for a while and began to love her curls too. It’s truly moving. What I tell them (and the college students I interact with) is if you decide to do anything to your exterior appearance, remember the context in which you plan to work. Plan to look neat and put together well, especially when interviewing for a job. In the professional world, natural hair is more accepted than in the past. However, you still have to maintain your hair and your look no matter what. Try new styles and learn what your hair responds to best, then play around with your hair. It’s fun! But in all seriousness, the most important thing is to be confident in yourself. If you are confident and you wear your natural ‘whatever’ with dignity and sophistication you will set the tone.

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Ebony McNeal

  1. Name: Ebony McNeal
  2. Education Level: I am currently in the second year of my PhD in English Literature program at the University of Mississippi
  3. What is the company/organization for which you work?  University of Mississippi
  4. What is your position? English Graduate Instructor
  5. How long have you been working there? One year
  6. How long have you been natural? 5 1/2 years
  7. How did you wear your hair for the interview for this position? There was no interview, but I wore my hair pressed straight for my first semester of teaching.
  8. Have you ever worn your hair in a natural style for any job interview? If so, for what position of what company and what where the results of the interview? Yes, I wore a natural pin up for my interview at College X for the Institutional Advancement Specialist position.  I was granted the position and held it for 3 years.
  9. Do you wear your hair in natural styles in the work place? Yes
  10. If so, have you faced any conflict because of it? Any praise? In my previous position, I received disparaging remarks regarding my natural hairstyles by superior officers.  My natural hair seems to be embraced by those surrounding me in my current position.  There are often comments of praise concerning my hair.
  11. What were the disparaging remarks about your hair at your last job and who said them? Was the person black? White? Older? Younger? Man? Woman? The remarks from my previous position were not overtly disparaging.  They were more passive (i.e. “What happened to your hair?”, “Oh! That’s different.”).  Most of the remarks came from older Black women and a few older Black men.  Any remarks from my white colleagues would be more along the lines of “How did you do that to your hair?”  There were quite a few young Black women who were toying with the idea of natural hair and we sort of formed an unofficial support group for hair suggestions and ideas there.  On the bright side, lots of my young Black female students sometimes stick around after class to ask hair questions.  That’s always flattering.
  12. What is your favorite hairstyle to wear to work?a natural twist out ‘fro

    Twist Out

  13. What hair styles, if any, are considered inappropriate in the work place?  I tend to stay away from a blow out for work because of the length of my hair.  I feel it would be distracting to have such a large hairstyle while teaching.
  14. Have you noticed any other black women working for the same company or organization as you? If so, how do they wear their hair? I am currently the only Black woman in my department working in this position.
  15. Do you find it difficult to take care of your hair now that you are working for this company or organization? No
  16. Do you have any advice for professional women who want to go natural or natural girls who want to go professional (are entering the workforce)?  Sure!  Be confident in your natural hair decisions.  People will only feel uneasy about your lovely coif, if you are unnerved by it.  Don’t be afraid to experiment with new styles and products.  Sometimes it’s best to try new things on the weekends or over breaks, just in case things don’t go as expected.

Conclusion:  I did not interview enough women to make a strong conclusion since there are so many universities in the United States and I probably on interview 0.00001% of the people who work on college campuses and maybe 0.0002% of the black women who work on college campuses.  I cannot imagine the percentage of natural women on college campuses, but the anecdotes demonstrate that you might be able to survive as a professor/lecturer/faculty/staff on a university campus.   If I can, I will definitely post more interviews of natural women in academia.  Unfortunately, the black woman in the highest position at my university that I know is not natural yet. [Cough cough] Dr. Z.

The surprising bit of information we can take away from this (or at least that which is surprising to some) is that the toughest critics of natural kinky-curly hair are quite often other black people.  Older black people.   This makes sense because the people I usually hear saying that the natural is unprofessional are older black people. No. I take that back, some of my white family members said this too, but guess what.  They all have curly hair.  Could it mean that we are our own worse enemies?  Or could it possibly mean that human beings tend prefer what we do not naturally have? I do not know. Dominicans despise curly hair (the way their hair is supposed to be naturally).  Many Nigerians do not see how a person can live without a relaxer.  I have noticed that some white people fry their hair to death with hair coloring and Chi’s (flat irons). Don’t you people know that God knows what he is doing?  In almost every case listed above, the processes used are highly toxic.  Not joking.

Anyway, we were talking about natural hair in the work place, the conclusion is that maybe if you are working for an older black person, you might want to be really careful of how you wear your hair.  I do not know for sure though.  These are two isolated incidences, albeit two isolated incidences in two different states.   One in the north and one in the south. Hmmm….

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Entry Filed under: Hair,Workplace

One Comment Add your own

  • 1. budgetbourgeois  |  August 10, 2011 at 3:16 am

    You are so right. I’ve gotten into very heated disagreements with my own family members about my daughters natural hair and why I refuse to even straighten it. They can’t seem to see the difference between her full, thick curls and the sparse scalps of the little girls who’ve had relaxers and (my scalp cringes) straightening combs over-used on their hair. I’m resilient, though. That conflict only showed my daughter that she doesn’t have to conform to anyone else’s standard of beauty; she’s quite fly as is. You have to have the courage of your convictions.


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