“Black” Hairstyles on White Women Evoke Questions of Professionalism

white-women-black-hairstyles1Black women’s hair seems to be in the news every other day or so. How it is styled, how long it is, what its texture feels like, and so on comes up in the media so regularly that it seems like a major facet of public dialogue. Sometimes women have been fired after their traditionally “black” hairstyles caused issues for them. And, black hair continues to be a major factor in the “othering” of black women.

So, what does it mean when non-black women sport traditionally “black” hairstyles? More specifically, when professional looking middle-aged white women wear cornrows, flat twists, finger waves, and twist outs, does it have the same effect? Does it raise the same questions?

Photographer Endia Beal sought to answer these questions when she recently photographed white women with “black” hairstyles. Her photos challenge not only the stereotypes of nonprofessional behavior these styles induce but also the question of conformity. Women are often told that their appearance has to be controlled or tailored to fit into the professional environment of corporate America. Specific styles of dress, nail colors, jewelry, and hair styles are expected in order for women to “fit in” at work. So, what happens when we are faced with the juxtaposition of these expectations? When black hair styles are on white women do they hold the same stigma? Are these women less professional? Can we take them seriously?

The psychological aspects of hair and skin color abound in this dialogue. How one views oneself comes into question based on the style of one’s hair. Women, in some situations, are socialized and conditioned to believe that these unimportant physical traits are definitive of internal aptitude and innate worth. How disturbing is that? Hairstyles, in some cases, are just used as a stand in for other social cues like race. And, they carry the same stigmas.

White Women Black Hair

What is probably the most important aspect of this exercise is the unspoken assumptions that these hairstyles evoke. And, we are all guilty of it. We associate cornrows with certain behaviors, skin colors, ideologies, and personae when in fact they just a part of a hairstyle. They are no more definitive of someone’s personality or character than a pair of shoes or a blouse. Yet, in our culture, we have so pointedly identified and ostracized certain ethnic groups, blacks especially, that some characteristics we typically possess are automatically discounted, minimized, reduced, and denigrated.

Does one’s hairstyle reduce one’s mental capacity? Do dreadlocks or afro puffs effect one’s customer service skills? Do braids or twists minimize one’s intellect? Of course not. But, everyday, black women are forced to step away from these traditional styles to fend off these assertions. It is completely unfair to black women that societal and social norms have indicted black hair as less than or unprofessional. But, it is a part of the crooked room we live in nonetheless. In some ways, our conformity is our agreement with the stereotypes thrust upon us. By changing our personal style, we are, in essence, saying that our traditional hairstyles are less professional or worthy than others.

Each day, we conform, contort, bend, and break ourselves to fit into a social mold cut out for someone or something else. Each interaction is loaded with the pretense and absence of candor we have brainwashed ourselves to believe is normalcy. And, while these photos challenge those tropes and cause us to reflect on the norms we internalize about our hair, they do little to further dialogue on race and gender in this country. Luckily, more and more women of color are working to be their authentic selves. Women are becoming empowered. The hope is that, one day, hairstyle will no longer be used to genderize one’s technical skill or mental aptitude. For now though, we should continue to examine how we treat one another and view ourselves based on something as shallow and fleeting as hair.worthSignature