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Is My Natural Hair Unprofessional?

As I prepare for the OCI recruitment process, I am constantly hearing my fellow Black law students ask questions about whether or not they should wear their natural hair for their interviews, and at large, within the workplace and firms. In her 2017 article, “Black on Bay Street”, Hadiya Roderique describes an interaction she had with a fellow law student, in which she was asked whether she was going to wear her natural hair to her upcoming interviews. This was something Roderique had not thought of before, and she began to ask herself, “should I straighten my hair, which I haven’t done in seven years?”. Roderique knew she did not want to work for a firm that would not want her for who she was, but she also knew that this principle might come at a cost as she had never met a Black lawyer with natural hair [1]. This is something that many Black law students, including myself, are forced to think about when we begin to enter professional spaces. We are left trying to overcome these types of challenges, to ensure we succeed in our career and legal endeavours.

Discrimination against natural hair in the workplace and law firms is a common injustice that typically targets Black people who choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair [2]. It is both conscious and unconscious biases around natural hair that mold this kind of discrimination. Despite our backgrounds, “society sends all of us messages about the kind of person who wears certain hairstyles” [3]. There is an undertone that continues to persist within society and professional spaces that natural Black hair is ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unprofessional’. Physical characteristics of people in the workplace are central to how they are perceived and the opportunities that they get to experience. Departure from the norm, with regards to physical appearance, can adversely affect one’s success [4].

The limits created by white people in positions of authority set the limits on how upcoming generations of their Black law students and lawyers are allowed to exist in the workplace, including how they wear their hair. These limits are what set the standards for what is ‘professional’ in these settings. Whether it is deliberate or not, there are various court cases which show that “these standards have an adverse impact on people with afro-textured hair, which has historically been portrayed as “unprofessional” in Western culture” [5]. From the evidence recorded about such policies, the restrictions disproportionately target Black lawyers, providing an additional financial and social barrier for their success in law spaces. Therefore, it is indeed beneficial for law firms to examine their company policies to make sure they are creating an environment that is inclusive of natural hair. Nevertheless, beyond policy, the firm’s culture is also what matters. It is extremely important for employers to create a workspace where employees who choose to wear their hair natural do not feel pressured to conform [6].

Overall, how one chooses to wear their hair during an interview or to work every day is a very personal decision. Black people should be able to wear their hair in whatever way makes them their most comfortable and confident self. If that means you want to straighten your hair then do that, if not, that should be acceptable as well. The questions we should ask are: how am I going to present better? And how am I going to feel more myself? How one chooses to present their most confident self should not be a decision made by anyone else for them. By presenting as one’s most confident self, a lawyer will have the confidence to succeed in their cases and legal endeavours. They may also feel more comfortable in their work environment not being subject to discriminatory social biases around their hair, dismantling one of the many subtle ways racism continues to exist in the workplace. Yes, this may seem idealistic, therefore it is also important to recognize that there continues to be underlying biases that permeate within law firms. But hopefully, as law firms are beginning to challenge those unconscious biases, they are becoming more conscious of what hair may mean to specific cultures and communities, and are also becoming more accepting. 

[1] The Globe and Mail. Black on Bay Street. November 4, 2017.  

[2] The Riveter. On Understanding and Embracing Natural Hair in the Workplace. 2020. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cornell University ILR School. How are Ethic Hairstyles Really Viewed in the Workplace? Fall 2016.

[5] The Riveter. On Understanding and Embracing Natural Hair in the Workplace. 2020. 

[6] Ibid.

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