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Power suit. Makeup on point. 

And the hair — natural, twisted, nappy, tousled?

“Shoutout to the people who told me I wouldn’t be able to get/keep a broadcast news job with a short natural haircut. Jokes on you, huh?” TV journalist Lena Pringle posted on Twitter in September. 

Pringle’s post was retweeted nearly 11,000 times and gets at the hairy situation flagged by Duke University professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette. She published a study in August 2020 that points toward a potential drain of Black talent unless there is a coarse — yes, coarse — correction in the marketplace. 

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Rosette spearheaded research yielding evidence of workplace discrimination against Black people with natural hairstyles. Black people’s hair can be coarse and tightly coiled, unlike that of most White people, upon whom norms of professionalism and competence are historically set, Rosette explained in a webinar. 

During that webinar, Rosette said her research led a Black man to share about declining a six-figure job offer after the employer encouraged him to change his natural hairstyle to something more in line with a “traditional” corporate look.

Rosette’s research is rooted in the marketplace experiences of Black women, who over the years have chemically straightened their hair to conform with workplace norms. Black women have endured hits to their self-esteem and lost career opportunities on account of rigid societal standards, Rosette explained. 

Employers serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion will promote a culture making it clear that nondiscriminatory hiring practices account for race, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, religion — and hairstyle. Doing so positions organizations as inclusive and culturally aware, since the straightening process for Black hair can be both costly to the pocketbook and harmful to the scalp.

This is beyond a touchy-feely, pun intended, a reference to the microaggression, “Can I touch your hair?” Those addressing hair-based discrimination are demonstrating that they fundamentally get it and are in step with movements such as the CROWN Act — CROWN is short for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. It’s a push to prohibit race-based hair discrimination. It’s a real thing. In fact, it’s a federal law in seven states, born out of a CROWN study that revealed Black women are 30 percent more likely than non-Black women to be made aware of workplace appearance policies. The study showed that Black women are 3.4 times more likely than non-Black women to be perceived as unprofessional, and Black women are 80 percent more likely to believe they have to change their hairstyles from their natural states in order to fit in at work. 

It’s worth considering how many game changers organizations have missed out on because of hairstyles; or the number of qualified Black candidates denied employment due to implicit bias suggesting kinky hairstyles are indicative of folks who aren’t as competent as individuals with classic, coiffed cuts. For some, natural hairstyles feed confirmation bias, specifically, to regard the wearers as urban, in the worse sense of the word, and interviewers listen more attentively for colloquialisms or signs of militancy that might creep into the workplace upon hiring non-conforming Black candidates. 

Yet consider how strongly an organization would have been positioned during the recent spotlight on racial inequities  if it had more boardroom seats filled with Black leaders who were ready to message their employees, clients, customers and the community at large.  Think about buy-in for a brand not pledging to get it right racially but are already doing so. Understand the residual business of being on the receiving end when there’s a push to buy Black. As has been said in, well, urban sectors, it’s not a matter of talking about it but being about it.       

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Before moving to school public relations, John McCann was a full-time, mainstream journalist covering subject matter from criminal courts to basketball courts, including a couple of Final Fours.

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