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Thembi’s Guide to Bringing Black Hair to Work

25 August 2008 22 Comments

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.

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


  • Kellybelle said:

    I have locs so I get, “Can you…wash…that?”

    Me: “No. In fact, I don’t bathe at all. Or wash my clothes. There was no water in Africa, why should I?” (walk off humming theme from “Roots.”)

  • Miss Gypsy Eyes said:

    *I have a cousin who’s mother is Filipino, his older siblings are all black, yet when I got my hair briaded(box braids) for the impending birth of my daughter, he exclaimed, “WOW! I didn’t know your hair was that long!” I smacked him in the forehead, and walked away shaking my head.
    * I go to a private southern baptist university (which reads as young white christians) My hair is longer than half of the white girls here yet a simple change from curly to straight or vice versa confuses the hell out of them. “OMG you totally got a perm (curly) it looks SOOOO awesome!” No, actually I just twisted it while it was wet and took it out when it was dry. Also as the only black person in the room in my sign language class I was the one asked to clarify “cornrolls” or “cornrows.” Had I been a little more adept at signing I would’ve asked how the hell I was supposed to know. Instead I just spelled the word and kept my mouth shut. Gotta love it.

  • gradmommy said:

    With locs, I often get asked, “How long does it take for you to do that?” I’m usually confused because I don’t know whether they mean how long it took for the hair to loc and grow, or how long is the every 2 weeks maintenance routine. Usually they don’t know what they’re asking either, so I either say, “About two years,” or “About an hour.” Then they will often look confused, because both answers seem too extreme from what they were thinking. If I’m in a nice mood, I’ll clarify, but oftentimes, I figure it’s better they be confused than I, so I just walk away…

  • Lola Gets said:

    Kellybelle had me dying up in the library, man!

    All I know is…I had enough of this shit at Smith, I shouldnt have to deal with this foolishness in whats supposed to be a “professional environment.” Im here to work, not to hip yall to the ins and outs of Black hair care, thank you very much.

    Now, if we’re at a social event, then, perhaps, Ill entertain a few questions, but after a while, Ill just refer you to the Internet – google it bitches!

    But thats the one thing I love about being Black; the flexibility we have when it comes to our hair. We can do so many things! I love it!!


  • NaturallyAlise said:

    I just recently cut my locs into a short bob and people are aghast at me daring to cut locs…. I keep responding “I don’t do long hair”, then I get, “Well why did you get locs?” and my final response is “I love locs, but not long hair” and I get the puzzled look…sigh….. why the obsession with long hair, or long locs specifically???

  • Christina said:

    I chopped most of my hair off years ago because I got tired of every form of hair drama. It has been way short the entirety of my professional life (me and Barack Obama used to have the same barber) so I don’t get the weird reactions to it so much…

    One thing I did want to say though… Non-black women have fake hair too! Not all of them, but if you see one with extra big, long voluminous hair odds are there’s some clip-ins in there someplace. Remember when Christina Aguilera used to walk around looking like George Clinton back in his yarn hair days? Usually they’re just less obvious about it, or it’s more believable on them, I dunno which, but who do you think is buying those long straight blonde ponytails they sell at kiosks in the mall?

  • Ill Mami said:

    I’m bald. By choice. I can’t deal with hair and haven’t since college. So while I can’t totally relate with hair woes, when I had hair long enough to get extensions down my back, white boys would follow me around the island of Manhattan to no end.

    Not that I minded at the time šŸ˜‰

  • Don said:

    The Black Woman can do over a million different things to her hair, even wear it natural. I’ve dated some black women who could cook dinner, write a book, and get their hair down all @ the same time.

  • ieishah said:

    i’m a dread, 7 years and counting, working (in spain) in a very multicultural and multilingual environment. no one knows anything about black anything. i try to stick with the last option (6), and educate them, one-by-one. i find that if someone asks a question about my hair that i’ve already answered for someone else, the co-worker in the know will educate the ignorant one for me. because white people always like to know and explain shit. this tendency crosses borders.

    however, there is one african woman on staff. she wears extensions and tries to pretend like our hair is the same. she once made a comment about ‘rastas like us’ . . . obviously, explaining the difference would require her owning up to having fake hair.

    but in not admitting it, she undermines all my efforts and hard work.

    i guess i’m seeking advice . . . how do you handle this situation?

  • Thembi said:

    You crazy.

    @Miss Gypsy Eyes
    That is the funniest thing Ive ever heard! The word cornrolls has always made me a little irritated, by the way. Is there really such a thing? Is it bad black English or just confused the othermanness?

    Having them be confused instead of you is key!

    The “google it!” approach is one I missed, and a good one!

    White women certainly wear fake hair, but they rarely do so unless its supposed to look real. We don’t even care, and I love it!

    @Ill Mami
    I wish my head weren’t so big, I’d go bald too…

    Thats what they call a “phenomenal woman”

    Im not going to get into that whole cultural divide between Africans and black Americans, cuz thats a whole post on its own. The thing to remember is that there are not many Africans (in Africa) who wear dreads, so maybe culturally she thinks that the fact that you both have ethnic hair and not perms makes you similar. But there’s nothing worse than a misrepresenting black person. The sweetheart in me would just keep my mouth shut. The Thembi in me, however, would have pull a #6 and treat her like someone who doesnt know what dreads are whether theres anyone else around or not. It’d be different if she had a private conversation with you about her extensions and was only frontin’ for white people, but trying to horn in on your YEARS of twistin’ and maintainin’ is just not good sisterhood! If there’s a bunch of question asking going on, in public, just throw her silly behind under the bus.

  • Hampton06 said:

    i had locs for years, during that whole period, i was met with deference by random black people on the street. i’d be greeted like i was headed to the community center to create a mentorship program. i do my share of service, but sometimes, i was just headed to sushi roku.

  • Treina said:

    lol! you are too funny, thembi. you know i am always changing up my ‘do – from braids to natural and back. folks at work always say “i wish i could do that with my hair!” followed by questions about how i styled whatever look i’m wearing at the moment. i guess it’s because i’m an educator that i never get tired of explaining how i put in braided extensions or how i do a twist out. there is one person i worry about though. after 3 years of working with me, he STILL doesn’t understand that the braids are not my real hair and that it doesn’t grow half-way down my back over a weekend. lord help him.

  • Anonymous said:

    I have naturally curly hair that when I straighten it has a tendency to look almost wiglike haha so when I do go 2 work with it straight its like my co-owrkers don’t recognize me and I can almost see them thinking “Is that her real hair?” And then I think to myself “the whole Superman/Clark Kent thing isnt just fiction huh?” cause I mean really my hair is the same color curly or straight and yeah I still look the same otherwise.

  • QueenK.D.W.-BK86 said:

    Aww the pet comment is nice and much more relaxed to some things I’ve done. Depending on the person, I’ve been known to turn, give them a good don’t mess with me look and then ask “Do I look like the petting zoo?”. I had to whip this out on a black man [stranger] in the middle of London once too, because he thought it was fine to be up in my hair in the middle of the street.

    Other nice, genuine people get a simple explanation.

    I also once went at it with a girl in h.s. Everyday she had a new stupid question…so I let loose a few stupid questions on the animals used in her cuisine to show her how it felt. She had the nerve to start telling me about practices in rural China. I could only laugh in the end.

  • otilia said:

    i used to feel the need to be overly informative when asked “how did you do that?” whenever my hair was straight/curly for a few days. then i just started answering “i washed it” with a straight face. it puzzles people, but they don’t dare ask any further…

  • Dallas said:


  • One Simple Rule « Full…But I Keep on Eating said:

    […] (the other is the receptionist),Ā can get uncomfortable. It’s a good thingĀ there’sĀ Thembiā€™s Guide to Bringing Black Hair to WorkĀ to help with one of theĀ major […]

  • The Curse of The Curly Perm | What Would Thembi Do? said:

    […] on cultural context and can create a “Who’s On First,” type of situation when our hair is the topic of conversation in the workplace. Where does one even begin when an innocent white person asks if you got a perm because your hair […]

  • sg said:

    kay but something I feel has been totally left out- white people ask white people about their hair. The only difference is that white peoples’ questions to other white people about their changed hairstyles are usually more informed. Some white girl in the office gets her hair chopped- people are going to comment. People comment on change. It’s just no good when they comment on change like they think they know how the change happened. But from reading all this you’d think white people only ever asked black people about their hair style changes. No. White people are always asking white people too. People are nosey. Black and white. I’m white, I worked in a mostly black office and people were always touching my way long hair, not beleiving it wasent a weave or a wig.

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