Braids. My natural hair. Wigs. A sew-in. A head wrap. There are limitless ways I choose to style and wear my hair. Besides my clothing, my hair is one of the ways I enjoy expressing myself. My hair is a symbol of creativity and patience but also a symbol of love for myself. Growing up, I did not have a sense of pride in my hair because of the ridicule I faced from the kids I went to school with. They laughed because my hair was too short. They laughed because I wore mini-braids. I could not catch a break. It was not until graduate school that I began loving who I was and every state that my hair was in.
I started experimenting with various styles during my first year of grad school and that is when colleagues started commenting on my hair. If I wore a wig I heard, “Oh! Your hair is so big, today!” If I decided to wear my natural hair, “Wow! Your hair is so short!” If I walked in with 18 inches of weave, “How did you get it in there? It’s so long!” It got to the point where some professionals at my graduate institution decided how I should wear my hair to interview for professional jobs.
I had a meeting with one of the white supervisors at my graduate institution and I mentioned that I was contemplating my hair style for my upcoming job interviews at The Placement Exchange:
Tristen: I’m not sure if I should wear my natural hair or a sew-in. I’m trying to decide if I have enough time to do my hair every day or not.
Supervisor: I think you should wear your sew-ins. It’s straight and it looks more professional.
Not feeling comfortable enough to tell her that her statement was microaggressive, I moved on with the conversation. I ultimately interviewed with a sew-in and every day before my interviews, I looked in the mirror and felt my hair was “more professional”.
Navigating my hair through the professional world is often challenging. I have students who do not recognize me when I wear a new style – or do not take me seriously. I have had colleagues in the past who have questioned my professionalism because I chose to wear long braids. There was a point in time where I began questioning my own meaning in the workplace because of how I wore my hair.
I recommend that professionals who supervise people of color try to gauge understanding about our hair and why certain styles are necessary. Sometimes we change our hair because it makes us feel good. Sometimes we change it because the weather outside is too harsh on our real hair. Whatever the case, critiquing a person’s work ethic based on their hairstyle is not a productive way to encourage supervisees and professionals.
I recognize, now, that the way I style my hair has nothing to do with my performance as a professional or how I serve the students who depend on me daily. My hair expression is just a small portion of who I am but it is something that I value as a professional in Student Affairs.
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Tristen Johnson is currently a Residence Hall Director at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a second year doctoral student Illinois State University.