Having ethnic hair in corporate AmericaPrint story

Melville, N.Y. — Despite warnings from her family that an ethnic hairdo might hurt her career, Melissa Theodore of Huntington, N.Y., an accountant at Ernst & Young, wears her hair in long, thin braids with burgundy highlights that cascade past her shoulders.
But Theodore, who has worked at the company for two years, doesn’t believe that. “My hair has never been a problem as far as my career goes,” said Theodore. “It’s neat and very professional.”
Black hair has historically been a controversial issue – especially when worn in its natural state in styles like afros, braids, cornrows and dreadlocks. Glamour magazine is still trying to put to bed an ugly matter that erupted five months ago when a former staffer made racially insensitive comments about the appropriateness of black women’s hairstyles in the workplace.
The magazine recently hosted “Women, Race & Beauty,” a panel that explored the culture of beauty, with an emphasis on ethnic hairstyles in corporate America.
“It was important to open up a dialogue on personal issues related to women, race and beauty,” said Samantha Rosenberg, a Glamour spokeswoman.
“We wanted to do something about (the incident).”
The incident that Rosenberg is talking about involves Ashley Baker, a white former associate editor at Glamour, who touched off a firestorm of controversy last summer when she told a roomful of female attorneys at law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton that afro-styled hairdos and dreadlocks are Glamour “don’t’s.”
“`No offense,’ she sniffed, but those `political hairstyles really have to go’,” reported American Lawyer magazine, which first broke the story.
After Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” comment in April, the remarks were shockingly hard to believe; some actually thought them a joke.
Glamour received hundreds of letters from angry readers, Rosenberg said. Editor Cindy Lieve posted an apology on the magazine’s Web site. Baker “resigned” shortly after.
Still, the anger over her comments continued to foment, prompting Glamour to assemble the panel. Journalist Faria Chideya moderated. Panelists included Essence magazine’s executive editor Vanessa Bush, Lisa Price, founder of Carol’s Daughter, which creates natural haircare and beauty products for black women; Jami Floyd, news anchor and legal analyst at Court TV, Daisy Hernandez, managing editor of Color Lines, a magazine on race and politics, celebrity makeup artist Mally Roncal, as well as professors Venus Opal Reese, who teaches aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and Barbara Trepagnier, who teaches sociology at Texas State University.
About 100 people, including selected readers who wrote in about the incident, were invited to attend. The event is not open to the public, but the magazine will write about it for an upcoming issue, says Rosenberg.
Baker, who has been lambasted as a racist, declined to comment for this article, but she did send Newsday an e-mail, which said:
“The so-called facts in this story have been misrepresented and sensationalized since the onset, and the media has already vilified me for opinions I do not have and statements I did not make.”
Stripped of its appalling delivery, was Baker’s observation wrong?
“Black hair is sensitive,” said Anna Holmes, the managing editor of Jezebel, a celebrity, sex and fashion blog for women, which followed the Baker story closely. “What Baker said was inappropriate, but was she inaccurate? No. She hit a nerve … society is uncomfortable with ethnic hair and it is uncomfortable about race. And it’s tough talking about all of it because emotion gets in the way.”
Still, an undertone that natural hair is unacceptable, unprofessional and even ugly continues to pervade society.
Over the years, lawsuits have been filed against companies for discriminating against black employees for their ethnic hairstyles. Corporate image experts, both black and white, subtly advise black women to remove their braids, dreadlocks, and other ethnic hairdo before interviewing at corporate jobs, experts confide. A scan of major black magazines, among them Ebony, Essence and Black Enterprise, show that despite burgeoning pride in ethnic hairstyles, many black women – especially those in high ranking positions – continue to chemically straighten their hair.
Newsday spoke to a wide array of people on the subject, including stylists, career experts, authors, journalists, and a handful of high-ranking black women executives in varying fields. The responses were about as divergent as the hairstyles that black women wear. A white corporate image expert acknowledged that ethnic hair in corporate America is a minefield and then promptly declined to comment for the story. An African-American executive at a well-known non-profit, who asked not to be identified, said a story on the subject was “irrelevant.”
“Nobody is going to talk to you about this subject,” said another high-ranking black woman.
Almost true. Calls to many just were not returned. The calls that were brought good and bad news: More corporate environments are accepting ethnic hairdos, but others quietly regard them as “unprofessional.”
As long as “hair is neat and put together, there is no natural hair texture that is inappropriate for corporate America,” said Jill Herzig, executive editor at Glamour. In fact, “it is increasingly important to show your personal style no matter where you work.”
Natural hairstyles are becoming more mainstream, said Donna Wallace, a 52-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative from Westbury, N.Y. “But there is still the misconception that straight hair is beautiful.” Two years ago, Wallace got tired of straightening her hair and decided to get a braided style.
Her hairdresser, Beverly Jones, owner of House of Hair in Uniondale, N.Y., gave Wallace a braided honeycomb bun, which was elegant, but understated.
“Corporate America is still conservative,” said Patricia Mitchell, director of the Center for Career Development at Adelphi University, noting that the corporate world largely reflects the tastes of reserved white males.
“I would never tell anyone with dreadlocks or braids to cut their hair,” said Mitchell, who is white. But, she said, corporate image can be tricky.
Mitchell recalled how one young woman was passed over for a second interview at a job fair because “she was wearing a beige suit” and how a young man got low marks from a recruiter because his top shirt button was visible above his tie.
It’s possible, said Mitchell, that an ethnic hairstyle, especially in regions where there is little diversity, could hurt a job applicant in a similar way.
Concerns about ethnic hairstyles, hardly are isolated to white-owned firms. Carl Dameron, who is African American and owns a public relations and advertising firm in San Bernardino, Calif., said that he has told his black female employees that outside of short-cropped afros, most ethnic hairstyles are a “no-no” in his office.
Hairstyles that distract are not considered professional, said Dameron. “White guys can’t wear mohawks, women can’t wear dreadlocks like Whoopi Goldberg.”
Dameron added that he doesn’t agree with the unspoken rule, but emphasized that it is an unfortunate reality. “There are exceptions,” he said. “If you can make the company boatloads of money then you can wear your hair any way you want.” Then after some thought Dameron said: “Make that ship loads of money.”