July 25, 2021

A Simple Compliment Will Do

“I wish I had hair like yours!” 

“Your hair is so pretty. I’d have to stick my finger in a socket to get mine to look like that.” 

“Is all that your hair? Your real hair? Can you wash it with all that extra hair in there? How long does something like that take? You must have a lot of time on your hands.”

“I never know who you’re gonna be when you come to work!”

“Ooh I like the straight hair on you. You look so professional now.”

The above is a quick list of terrible attempts at compliments I have received about my hair in the workplace, mostly from white people. These kinds of compliments make me uncomfortable and make me feel like I’m being studied like an oddity. The “compliment” that straight hair makes me look professional is especially irritating because it implies my work and I can only be taken seriously if I fit into a Eurocentric standard of beauty if I burn away the natural design of my body to become less noticeable as a Black woman. I love my naturally curly hair. I love changing hairstyles frequently. And the work I do is good. 

I started wearing my hair in its natural state, as in without any chemical or heat-treated processes, in my early 20s, which was during the late 1990s. I’d been getting my hair straightened via perms since I was 12 or 13, and when I went natural, I received a lot of pushback: Curly hair is for children. Wild hair is unprofessional. Curly hair is only acceptable if the curls are big, loose, and defined. When I would go into job interviews, I’d see the person I was meeting with staring at my hair so I started to go to interviews with my hair slicked back in a nice bun, and sometimes I’d wear straight wigs. When I got the job, I’d arrive with my hair in my usual curly ‘fro and receive many startled looks. 

As the 2000s progressed, more and more Black and Afro-Latina women stopped straightening their hair. We began wearing our curls in afros or wash’n’go styles or protective styles like braids and extended cornrows, and many of our predominantly white professional environments fought back. Military branches banned natural hairstyles like dreadlocks and twists before eventually reversing the decision after an uproar. News reporters alleged they were fired for wearing natural hair or braid styles. Hair-based discrimination is everywhere from student-athletes being forced to cut their hair to Olympic bans of swim caps

The Crown Act was created to fight hair bias and discrimination, which is not something that began in the last 20 years. In 1786, Louisiana governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró passed the tignon laws, forcing freed Black women to cover their hair with scarves/wraps in response to complaints from white people, in particular white women, about the beauty and brazenness of Black women. The scarves were meant to be class markers and remind Black women of their lower status; instead, they decorated their scarves with jewels and colorful patterns, making themselves stand out even more. 

So how should you let someone know you like their hair? 

  • Say “I like your hair!” and that’s it. 
  • Say “I love your new hairstyle!” and that’s it. 
  • Do not reach out to touch it.
  • Do not touch it.
  • Do not invade personal space to look at their hair or examine how the style is done.
  • Do not ask to touch it. 
  • Do not ask intrusive questions about the style. 
  • It does not matter if you once went on a mission/safari/Heart of Darkness tour and all the Black and brown people touched your silvery blonde locs and creamy pale skin without your permission. You are no longer there. You are at work. Your colleague is not a tourist stop. 

Exceptions can be made if you have a Black/mixed-race child and need help, but first, you should probably go to Google or YouTube. If you have a decent relationship with a Black coworker (i.e. you are more than cordial and actually have conversations with them), then you can say “I need some help with my child’s hair care. I’ve looked on YouTube/Google but I was wondering if you had some personal recommendations.” Most people will be happy to help you there because ignoring cultural beauty differences for the sake of “colorblindness” can lead to some serious issues, which is a topic for another day. 

When a coworker tells me they never know how I’m going to look because I change my hair often or that I look better with straight hair, what I hear is them telling me I am outside of the norm. I hear fear and envy of my ability to stand out in a sea of sameness. No, I don’t want to look like Cheryl in Accounting or Tanya in HR. I don’t want to be forgettable in a crowd of straight hair and office cardigans. I love and am proud of my hair, and if you don’t like it, you can keep it to yourself. And if you do, all you have to do is say so. A simple compliment will do.