I am from the South Side of Chicago, and in seventh grade, I had a best friend named Jenny who lived on the Southwest Side of Chicago. Jenny was white, and if you know anything about the segregated demographics of Chicago, you know that there are not too many black people who live on the Southwest Side of Chicago. But Jenny was my girl and so we would hang out every so often after school and on the weekends. And so one day we were hanging out in her living room, talking about 13-year-old things, and Jenny's little sister Rosie was in the room with us, and she was sitting behind me just kind of playing in my hair, and I wasn't thinking too much about what she was doing. But at a pause in the conversation, Rosie tapped me on the shoulder. She said, "Can I ask you a question?" I said, "Yeah, Rosie. Sure." "Are you black?"
The room froze. Silence. Jenny and Rosie's mom was not too far away. She was in the kitchen and she overheard the conversation, and she was mortified. She said, "Rosie! You can't ask people questions like that." And Jenny was my friend, and I know she was really embarrassed. I felt kind of bad for her, but actually I was not offended. I figured it wasn't Rosie's fault that in her 10 short years on this earth, living on the Southwest Side of Chicago, she wasn't 100 percent sure what a black person looked like. That's fair. But what was more surprising to me was, in all of this time I had spent with Jenny and Rosie's family—hanging out with them, playing with them, even physically interacting with them—it was not until Rosie put her hands in my hair that she thought to ask me if I was black. That was the first time I would realize how big of a role the texture of my hair played in confirming my ethnicity, but also that it would play a key role in how I'm viewed by others in society.
Garrett A. Morgan and Madame CJ Walker were pioneers of the black hair-care and beauty industry in the early 1900s. They're best known as the inventors of chemically-based hair creams and heat straightening tools designed to permanently, or semipermanently, alter the texture of black hair. Oftentimes when we think about the history of blacks in America, we think about the heinous acts and numerous injustices that we experienced as people of color because of the color of our skin, when in fact, in post-Civil War America, it was the hair of an African-American male or female that was known as the most "telling feature" of Negro status, more so than the color of the skin. And so before they were staples of the multibillion-dollar hair-care industry, our dependency on tools and products, like the hair relaxer and the pressing comb, were more about our survival and advancement as a race in postslavery America.
Over the years, we grew accustomed to this idea that straighter and longer hair meant better and more beautiful. We became culturally obsessed with this idea of having what we like to call..."good hair." This essentially means: the looser the curl pattern, the better the hair. And we let these institutionalized ideas form a false sense of hierarchy that would determine what was considered a good grade of hair and what was not. What's worse is that we let these false ideologies invade our perception of ourselves, and they still continue to infect our cultural identity as African-American women today.
So what did we do? We went to the hair salon every six to eight weeks, without fail, to subject our scalps to harsh straightening chemicals beginning at a very young age—sometimes eight, 10—that would result in hair loss, bald spots, sometimes even burns on the scalp. We fry our hair at temperatures of 450 degrees Fahrenheit or higher almost daily, to maintain the straight look. Or we simply cover our hair up with wigs and weaves, only to let our roots breathe in private where no one knows what's really going on under there.
We adopted these practices in our own communities, and so it's no wonder why today the typical ideal vision of a professional black woman, especially in corporate America, tends to look like this, rather than like this. And she certainly doesn't look like this.
In September of this year, a federal court ruled it lawful for a company to discriminate against hiring an employee based on if she or he wears dreadlocks. In the case, the hiring manager in Mobile, Alabama is on record as saying, "I'm not saying yours are messy, but...you know what I'm talking about." Well, what was she talking about? Did she think that they were ugly? Or maybe they were just a little too Afrocentric and pro-black-looking for her taste. Or maybe it's not about Afrocentricity, and it's more just about it being a little too "urban" for the professional setting. Perhaps she had a genuine concern in that they looked "scary" and that they would intimidate the clients and their customer base. All of these words are ones that are too often associated with the stigma attached to natural hairstyles. And this...this has got to change.
In 2013, a white paper published by the Deloitte Leadership Center for Inclusion, studied 3,000 individuals in executive leadership roles on the concept of covering in the workplace based on appearance, advocacy, affiliation and association. When thinking about appearance-based covering, the study showed that 67 percent of women of color cover in the workplace based on their appearance. Of the total respondents who admitted to appearance-based covering, 82 percent said that it was somewhat to extremely important for them to do so for their professional advancement.
Now, this is Ursula Burns. She is the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company—of Xerox. She's known by her signature look, the one that you see here. A short, nicely trimmed, well-manicured Afro. Ms. Burns is what we like to call a "natural girl." And she is paving the way and showing what's possible for African-American women seeking to climb the corporate ladder, but still wishing to wear natural hairstyles.
But today the majority of African-American women who we still look to as leaders, icons and role models, still opt for a straight-hair look. Now, maybe it's because they want to—this is authentically how they feel best—but maybe—and I bet—that a part of them felt like they had to in order to reach the level of success that they have attained today.
There is a natural hair movement that is sweeping the country and also in some places in Europe. Millions of women are exploring what it means to transition to natural hair, and they're cutting off years and years of dry, damaged ends in order to restore their natural curl pattern. I know because I have been an advocate and an ambassador for this movement for roughly the last three years. After 27 years of excessive heat and harsh chemicals, my hair was beginning to show extreme signs of wear and tear. It was breaking off, it was thinning, looking just extremely dry and brittle. All those years of chasing that conventional image of beauty that we saw earlier was finally beginning to take its toll. I wanted to do something about it, and so I started what I called the "No Heat Challenge," where I would refrain from using heat styling tools on my hair for six months. And like a good millennial, I documented it on social media.
I documented as I reluctantly cut off three to four inches of my beloved hair. I documented as I struggled to master these natural hairstyles, and also as I struggled to embrace them and think that they actually looked good. And I documented as my hair texture slowly began to change.
By sharing this journey openly, I learned that I was not the only woman going through this and that in fact there were thousands and thousands of other women who were longing to do the same. So they would reach out to me and they would say, "Cheyenne, how did you do that natural hairstyle that I saw you with the other day? What new products have you started using that might be a little better for my hair texture as it begins to change?" Or, "What are some of the natural hair routines that I should begin to adopt to slowly restore the health of my hair?" But I also found that there were a large number of women who were extremely hesitant to take that first step because they were paralyzed by fear. Fear of the unknown—what would they now look like? How would they feel about themselves with these natural hairstyles? And most importantly to them, how would others view them?
Over the last three years of having numerous conversations with friends of mine and also complete strangers from around the world, I learned some really important things about how African-American women identify with their hair. And so when I think back to that hiring manager in Mobile, Alabama, I'd say, "Actually, no. We don't know what you're talking about." But here are some things that we do know. We know that when black women embrace their love for their natural hair, it helps to undo generations of teaching that black in its natural state is not beautiful, or something to be hidden or covered up. We know that black women express their individuality and experience feelings of empowerment by experimenting with different hairstyles regularly. And we also know that when we're invited to wear our natural hair in the workplace, it reinforces that we are uniquely valued and thus helps us to flourish and advance professionally.
I leave you with this. In a time of racial and social tension, embracing this movement and others like this help us to rise above the confines of the status quo. So when you see a woman with braids or locks draping down her back, or you notice your colleague who has stopped straightening her hair to work, do not simply approach her and admire and ask her if you can touch it.
Really appreciate her. Applaud her. Heck, even high-five her if that's what you feel so inclined to do. Because this—this is more than about a hairstyle. It's about self-love and self-worth. It's about being brave enough not to fold under the pressure of others' expectations. And about knowing that making the decision to stray from the norm does not define who we are, but it simply reveals who we are.
And finally, being brave is easier when we can count on the compassion of others. So after today, I certainly hope that we can count on you.