Monday, September 8, 2008

WorkPlace 101 GuestPost: Thembi's Guide To Bringing Black Hair To Work.

[Editor's Note: If nothing else, is all about distinct site visits equal access and universal appeal to all members of AverageNation™. So, when I bellyached about my travails with finding a good barber (BTW, no progress on that front), some of my female readers were understandably alienated. My cyber-homegirl Thembi stepped up with some tips for the sistas on how to keep your Day Job and hairstyle completely copacetic. All usual, show some love you know where. And no, I don't know if that's Thembi's photo above or not. I'm sure she'll tell us.]

It happens to all black women. Whether you have relaxed or natural hair, a weave, or braids. I'm talking about white people asking questions and making nutty comments about your hair. If you spend any time in an environment where blacks are in the minority (i.e. if you have a job), then there has to be someone who wants to touch your 'fro, another who asks how long your braids took, and another who innocently inquires about your new weave. The effects of humidity and heat styling on Negro hair are lost to most people, and the difference between a "perm" and a "curly perm" has still not been clarified for the masses.

Meanwhile, black women are limited in almost every area of society but the one thing that we can do that is off-limits to the rest of the world is blatantly wear fake hair and get away with it. Just think: what if some white man just threw on a bowl-cut wig to try something new? Or an Asian lady got a weave to rock a Farrah Fawcett look? They'd both be mocked to the edge of the earth or suspected of mental illness. Black women can pull it off however, and since wearing weaves or braids is usually not an option for white folks they have no idea how any of it works. As a result, a lot of white people (and Asians and some Latinos) are absolutely clueless about black hair, that cluelessness leads to off-the-wall comments, which lead to an isolated feeling for us black women, all of which certainly goes a long way toward making us "angry" and "bitter." But there are six effective techniques that I use to deal with the constant barrage of hair questions and comments without losing my mind.

Technique #1: Default to Predictability. I spent a few years afraid to change my hair just so I wouldn't have to deal with people at work noticing the change and asking annoying questions about my new do. During this time, I'd seldom even dare to throw a clip into my afro or try a new brand of hair gel. Once, another black female came in for an interview. When one coworker asked another what the latest candidate looked like, she was described as having "Thembi hair" (of course no one used the adjective "black" to describe her but that's a whole 'nother post). Thembi Hair? In reality she was just like about a million of us who rock "teeny-weeny afros". This young lady didn't take the job, but if she had I would have been a bit of a trailblazer for her; any questions about the inner-workings of black hair in its natural state would have already been asked by the office and answered by me, because the teeny weeny afro had become familiar territory for everyone.

Technique #2: Rinse and Repeat. When I can't be bothered to blowdry my hair it looks 75% shorter and curlier. Whenever it's humid or I get lazy with the heat-styling, one of my co-workers always says "Wow, you cut your hair!". I always put on a stolid expression and say the same exact thing: "No, I never, ever, cut my hair." For the past two years I have been repeating over and over that it is impossible that I cut my hair, and lately my coworker just keeps his observations to himself out of embarrassment. Quite simply, he knows that if he says anything about a haircut, I'll tell him that I didn't cut my hair. The exact mechanism by which my hair can suddenly look longer is unknown to him, he just knows that any mention of a haircut will result in a shut-down, so he keeps his trap shut. He has been trained.

Technique #3: The "Cry For Help Hairpiece." Depending on what social circles you run in, having fake hair does not have to be a secret. I personally believe that openness between black women is a beautiful thing when it comes to fake hair! So, one way to hip white folks to the game is by throwing on a ponytail piece that is so obviously fake that their mentioning it would result in embarrassment for everyone involved. If your hair is black get a reddish piece. If your hair is relaxed, throw in a bushy puff. No matter how you do it, make sure that both hair textures are showing, that the two colors don't quite match, and that you're confident with it all. Everyone will realize that you're wearing fake hair and won't say a word when you whip off the piece and come in the next day baldheaded, because, in their culture, wearing fake hair is embarrassing and they certainly don't intend to embarrass you. From that point on your co-workers will realize that they just can't keep up, and anything is possible when it comes to your hair.

Technique #4: The Canned Analogy. Why do people try to touch my hair? There are those intimate moments that call for this sort of thing, but by and large the last thing I need on my hair is a moist, human hand. Instances like these are best avoided by quick neck reflexes, but just in case you have to explain yourself an analogy may be in order. Usually, the person touching your hair is doing so because they wouldn't mind it if you touched theirs. What they need to understand is that it's not the same thing. If I'm speaking to a white man, I always say "It's not the same. Think about it: I could pinch your nipple but if you did the same to me it'd be a problem, right?" To other women, I say "What kind of mentally enslaved freak would I be if I wanted to touch your straight hair as a novelty?" In the case that these analogies don't work, a simple "What am I, a stuffed animal?" usually brings about enough shame in the toucher that they wouldn't dare to try it again.

Technique #5: The Evil Eye. There is a sinking feeling that comes with the comment "Oooo, you got your hair done" when you come to work the day after getting a simple touch up. On one hand, yes, my hair has just been done, but on the other hand, it's just the same as it used to be, just touched up. The idea that it looks different enough to draw comments must mean that more frequent touch-ups are in order, an interpretation that is lost to most people who aren't hollerin' at that every-eight-weeks no-lye relaxer. I've never been in any sort of physical fight but as a hefty black chick I've noticed that most people (except for other black women) shrink away when I show any degree of aggression. Since there's little I can do to seem less than intimidating, I use the misperception that I may fly-off-the-handle to my advantage. When it comes to hair, I have a handful of coworkers who are too scared to say much more than "I like your hair," because they know that I just may give them that evil eye, implying that any further statement or question would be insulting. Definitely use this technique sparingly, because the evil eye can also get you out of grunt-work office assignments or those after-work happy hours when needed. We don't want to cry wolf on our stankness, now do we?

Technique #6: Straighten Them Out. A friend of mine was wearing her hair in a bob and then got shoulder length kinky twists, and a colleague said "Wow, your hair is so long when you braid it like that." Another friend gets intricate cornrows and has one coworker who consistently asks "how long did that take?" a question that gets really old after the third time. One way to brave this storm is to simply answer with the truth. Tell white people what extensions are and that you have them, let them know, with a "can you believe it?", that your braids took six hours. This way, at least one person out of the clueless millions out there will understand how much preparation goes into what we're working with and come one step closer to "getting it." Frankly, if I didn't have my own batch I'd be confused by Negro hair, too, so sometimes a little education is in order.

Question:Do you have any hair-at-work stories or special strategies for bringing black hair to work? Please discuss in the comments.

Peep More at What Would Thembi Do!?!

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