World Afro Day 2022. Although it’s the 21st century there still remains some angst over black people wearing their hair naturally. So much so, that on 15 September 2017, World Afro Day was founded by Michelle De Leon, as a global day of change, education and celebration of Afro hair and identity.
For many black people around the world, their natural hair, their ‘fro’, has traditionally been a lightening rod for mocking, discrimination or harassment. A method to deny the diversity of their hair, by outlawing it’s growth, styling and difference. An afro has been seen in the past, as too untidy for school, too subversive for work, and too unprofessional for senior leadership.
However, it can remain a fascination for many, so much so that it seems ‘natural’ to want to reach out and touch it. Increasingly, however, it is being recognised that this is a strange desire to succumb to, and if it was reciprocated (a black person grabbing and stroking a white person’s hair, or touching and polishing a bald spot for example), it would be a cause of global offence and astonishment.
I know some people are perplexed when black people cry out ‘Don’t touch my hair‘, the reason some people do this is due to its disturbing historical context.
It is, however, the 21st Century and times are changing. All around the world, laws designed to stop discrimination against natural hair styles are being enacted, and more people are questioning the right to ask black people to change their hair to euro centric ones, in order to get jobs, be promoted or go to school.
Why does ‘accepting’ afro hair matter to business?
Having Afro hair and (wearing or not) of natural hair styles are often a large part of the identity of a black person. According to City Mental Health Alliance, only 54% of Black people (who responded to their survey in the UK), felt able to be themselves at work. 43% of black employees felt the need to change aspects of their behaviour compared to just 27% of white British people.
52% of black and 45% of mixed race employees said that feelings of not fitting into work was a contributing factor to their poor mental health compared to 34% of white British people. This can lead to poor health outcomes for black and mixed race employees, leading to stress, feelings of burnout and trauma responses. Not only does this lead to increased costs (absence, overtime, litigation, reduced value of the Employer Brand), it has a negative affect on organisational engagement and culture. People Management (the CIPD’s magazine) reported in April that only one third of Black women felt valued at work.
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In World Afro Day’s article: Afro Hair and Professionalism they relate an incident where Head Girl Temi was told by her Head of Year during career day (in front of prospective universities and employers) that her afro was ‘a bit unprofessional’.
“It was the first time I wore my natural hair out, so I was really nervous about it, I wasn’t feeling as confident as I usually was”.Temi, speaking to World Afro Day
This disquiet, and a feeling to change your behaviour or identity to fit in, can continue into the workplace. When co-workers touch, pull and play with someone’s hair (without permission), have ‘quiet words’ to express that unless they came to work with more ‘professional’ hair, they would not be promoted or be allowed to be customer facing. Articulations regarding stereotypes of ‘gang culture’ being expressed by co-workers and managers, because someone’s hair is ‘atypical’ to the euro-centric norm, can cause black people, women in particular, to struggle to ‘bring their full self’ to work.
The feeling of belongingness has a significant impact on an employee’s engagement, an organisation’s culture and its ability to satisfy the needs of its customers.
Growing research highlights that diverse teams are also smarter, more robust and innovative.
The Black Pound Report 2022, found that disposable income worth up to £4.5bn is being ignored. They discovered, for example, that multi-ethnic consumers are spending £230m every month on health and beauty, but nearly 4 in 10 black women shoppers still found it difficult to buy cosmetics and skin care products.
Their research also shows that black, Asian and multi-ethnic consumers were more motivated to buy locally, with 64% of participants responding positively compared to 56% of the general population. However, a lack of products and services designed for them, can ultimately force them to buy online, at a time when local economies and the high street are looking for patronage.
As diverse consumer bases grow, organisations require the input and perspectives of a diverse workplace as well. Therefore increasing the likelihood of innovative new solutions, services and products that fit the needs of their diverse consumers and decision makers. If an organisation acquires a reputation that they are a ‘bad employer’ to people of colour, it is likely that their product and services will be ignored by the very consumer base they are trying to attract.
This is a time for change.
This is the time to breathe life into Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies.
This is a time for leadership.
Could this be the time to consider and embrace the cultural differences of black people? To recognise that their natural hair is a part of their identity?
The US has enacted the Crown Act (in some States) and in the UK there is implied protection from the Equality Act 2010. However, if an expression of your identity and culture, is acceptable when worn by another race, but is considered inappropriate when you wear it, shouldn’t this be the time to change our perspectives?
World Afro Day was founded by Michelle De Leon, as a global day of change, education and celebration of Afro hair and identity. Maybe, just maybe, the time for change IS NOW?