This is a column from Hot Desk in our October 2014 issue. Words by Zanele Kumalo.
Afros. Cornrows. Braids. Twists. Together with a Rihanna-inspired pixie, a bob to rival Anna Wintour’s and a hotly debated weave, they’re all styles I’ve worn as a career woman. But only the first four would have rendered me unemployable by the US Army. Yep, according to an updated appearance and grooming policy issued by the defenders of the free world to their personnel, Afros, cornrows, braids, dreadlocks and twists have been banned for duty. Their rationalisation? These styles are ‘unkempt.’
I’ve always felt a peculiar pressure to style my hair according to what might or might not be acceptable for work. It goes beyond looking neat and professional. Beyond pulling it into a ponytail or scraping it into a bun. It measures standards about grooming based on one race that rejects another: white women’s hair is familiar, straight, ‘fine’ and consummate, while black women’s hair is strange kinky, coarse and unpolished. Scalps must be burned with chemicals or a heated instrument in order to comply – an absurdity that affects even white or mixed-race women who tediously iron their curls in fear of sending the wrong communiqué.
But it’s not just about styling, it’s about changing the nature of the way your hair grows out – a cultural tradition linked to ethnicity. Black women should have the option to wear our hair however we choose, without feeling that our identity is being undermined because people feel unfamiliar with the way it looks or that it makes us less employable. That a perfectly groomed Afro would have jeopardised my earning potential more than my catastrophic raven weave is tragic and misguided.