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Thembi’s Guide To Bringing Black Hair To Work

27 August 2009 12 Comments

Editor’s Note: Since I started this series the feedback has been fascinating. Some people insist that black hair is not important enough to discuss at all (which is funny because it’s important enough for them to take their time to tell me that they think that, but anyway…), while others are glad to have a safe space to discuss it all. I write for the latter, and the edited version of this post from 2008, “Thembi’s Guide To Bringing Black Hair To Work,” focuses on some of the issues that simply declaring “I am not my hair! We are all people!” cannot remedy. I hope to delve further into these issues with fresh eyes, but for now sit back and enjoy this WWTD classic. As always, I’d appreciate your feedback in the comments!


It happens to most 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 is blatantly wear fake hair and get away with it. Just think: what if some white man 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. But black women can pull it off, and since wearing weaves or braids is usually not an option for the majority 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, which leads to off-the-wall comments, which leads to the pressure of having to explain our very existence, which leads to an isolated feeling for black women, which certainly goes a long way toward making us “angry” and “bitter.” But there are six effective techniques I use to deal with the constant barrage of off-putting hair questions and comments without losing my mind.

Technique #1: Default to Predictability. I didn’t bother changing my hair for years because I didn’t want 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 throw a clip into my Afro or try a new brand of hair gel. Once, another black female came into the office 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 essay). In plain terms, the new candidate was just like about a million of us who rock “teeny-weeny Afro.” This young lady didn’t take the job, but if she had I would have been a trailblazer for her. Apparently no one in my office had ever seen a head like mine, so my hair had become an anthropological observation now branded as ‘Thembi Hair’. After so many years of the same thing, ‘Thembi Hair’ was familiar enough territory for my co-workers that the teeny weeny Afro and black hair in its natural state was no longer the craziest thing in the world.

Technique #2: Rinse and Repeat. When I can’t be bothered to blow dry my hair it looks 75% shorter and curlier, so if it’s humid or I get lazy with the heat-styling one of my co-workers always says “wow, you cut your hair!” I routinely put on a stolid expression and say the exact same thing to him: “No, I never, ever, cut my hair.” For two years I have consistently repeated that I definitely DID NOT put a scissor to my head, so 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 shut him right on down. The exact mechanism by which my hair can suddenly look shorter or longer is unknown to him, but like Pavlov’s dogs he knows precisely what he’ll get if he says anything so he keeps his trap closed. All he knows is that there’s something he doesn’t know, and by now he’s fine with that. He has been trained.

Technique #3: The “Cry For Help Hairpiece.” Depending on your social circle, having fake hair need not be a secret. I 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 in a ponytail piece that is so obviously fake that any mention of it would result in embarrassment for all. 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 therefore 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 crowning glory.

Technique #4: The Canned Analogy. Why do people try to touch our hair? It’s rarely called for and the last thing I need on my hair is a moist, human hand. Instances like these are best avoided by quick neck reflexes, but if you ever need to explain yourself an analogy may be in order. Usually, people touch your hair because they’re curious and wouldn’t mind if you touched theirs in return. 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?” If these analogies don’t work or the offender is another black woman eager to feel a handful of naps, a simple “What am I, a stuffed animal?” usually conjures enough shame in the toucher that they wouldn’t dare 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 exactly the same as it used to be, just touched up. The idea that it looks different enough now 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-week no-lye relaxer. As a black woman I don’t mind using the misperception that I have a short temper 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 wore her hair in a straight, chin-length bob and then got shoulder-length kinky twists. 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.


  • Krystena said:

    Hey Thembi, I met you a few years ago at a Puma Party in Philly where we discussed being black in Korea after I told you I would likely visit someday soon. Any way all that back story to say this article had me rollin’. And I love the changes you’ve made to the site. I’m sure by now you must have devout readership and FB connect surely helps. I check in on your blog from time to time so needless to say I’ll be back;-)


  • lola gets said:

    At my current place of employment, folks havent been that interested in my hair texture, its “Blackness” as you might say. My mostly-white-hair-having-ass gets more comments on its color than its texture, lol.

    “So how much gray do you have Lola?” Cause its truly a mystery, lol.

    The only people at my job who are interested in styles and textures are the other Black folks. In fact one -who reads the blog too, hey man! – asked me this week if I straightened my hair. I just had it pulled into a bun, and yes, most of my hair does that when pulled, lol. Oh, hey dude, Im waiting for that flat iron you promised me, mkay??

    Ive had more problems with folks of other races and my hair in prep school and college. Looootttssss of issues there, OMG! I remember that in second grade, one of my Caucasian friends told me that I had nice soft hair “just like a pillow”. Mkay. Hm.

    I probably havent recieved many comments on my hair over the years, because Im not that adventurous. Yeah, Id do a semi-perm color or a rinse or something, but nothing too strange. And even though I was a teen in the ’80s, I NEVER had an asymetrical. SO NOT ME! I was your basic bob’n bang girl. Ive only had braids twice. Once when I was 8, the second time when I was 32 and broke and desperate and only kept them for a week. The only twists Ive had have been single-strang, and, again, only lasted a week. I have wanted to try more Afrocentric styles, but I have scalp issues and dont wanna go around looking all crusty n dirty nshyt, so until I have the funds to address that, those styles will just have to wait.

    Im toying with the idea of cutting off all my colored hair – I have about 2.5 inches of new growth. Perhaps, just maybe, Ill try a wig if I do that. And yeah, thatll be a first time for me, too, lol. Im quite sure that folks will say something about it too. Fire away, I am not ashamed of my game and have nothing to hide!


  • G said:

    This is definitely an essay that needs to be sent to all non-whites. I have had almost all of these things happen to me. I’ve had white people asking me in a whisper if I had extensions (which I did), I’ve had white people think my micros were my real hair, and I’ve had white people rub my buzz cut like it was a pregnant womans belly. None of those instances were intentionally rude, but it would’ve made them more appropriate if they pre-empted them by saying,’Excuse me if this comes off as rude or insensitive, but can I ask…’

    Please print this essay and distribute. Society needs it.

  • donnadara said:

    Not a work story, but my chiropractor rubbed my budding locs like he was looking for some luck. I fired him.

  • A Sista’s Guide to Black Hair at the Job - A Big Butt and a Smile said:

    […] of What Would Thembi Do, has a great piece on how to navigate black hair at […]

  • Corporate AfroPuff said:

    I keep it short and vague, snap hard when someone tries to touch it and whenever the whiteboys get confused, but greet me with a, “Wow, you change your hair so much, you must spend SO much time on it “, I usually greet them back, “Not really, but glad to see you’re trying to keep up…I’m sorry, what is it you needed to talk about regarding the project/briefing/meeting?” I think Lani Guinier was my first “natural hair in the workplace” role model. I am going to use those one-liners. Thanks Thembi, a classic for sure.

  • Tafari said:

    That collage made me snort my wine. Now my nose is burning. Thx!!!

  • The78MsJ said:

    One time I went to this get together besides me my sister and my other co-worker we were the only colored folk in attendance. I was sitting in a chair minding my own business when I feel a pressure on my natural long all the way down my back even in a ponytail hair being touched I’m like wait is this not 2008? I turn around and this 20ish Latino boy has both hands up like no offense and I’m like dude lol lmao its mine no extension needed. GTFOOH with the touching of my hair shit is irksome. Unless you kicking in on a hair appointment which is 60.00 a pop and that’s just for a regular press and flat iron then by all means don’t touch my hair!

  • Dara said:

    a year later this post still makes me LOL! so right on.

  • mscleanlocs said:

    Love your site, Thembi! And yes, I have some black woman hair stories, but I think this one took the cake: a white co-worker actually asked me if I ever washed my locs! I asked her why in the world she would think I didn’t wash my locs on a regular basis, and she said {wait for it . . . wait for it}, “Well, my black friend in Ohio has locs and she NEVER washes them!” WTF for reals!

    This woman has left our firm and it’s a good thing, too.

    Of course, maybe this will put some perspective on where this woman is coming from. She actually asked another black co-worker, “Who are those white peoples’ pictures on your wall?”

    I could go on and on, but I need to get a tissue and wipe my eyes from laughing at all of this.

    My mama used to say, “It’s not what’s ON your head, but what’s IN your head.” I’m thinking I need to make a huge poster with that saying on it, and put that on MY wall! With a collage of different black women’s ‘do’s! That’ll definitely get white folks to wondering if we’re planning a revolution! lol!

    Thanks for a wonderful article!

  • denise sam said:

    Hey I love ur story. I have waist length natural locks and people always feel they can pull it and touch it without asking, it gets pretty annoying. “How is your hair so long? Do you have extensions? how long did it take to get that long? Do you wash it? ” those are just a few of the stupid ass questions people ask when they see me.
    I try to encourage more of my African friends to go natural, to stop the weaves, wigs, hair pieces and relaxers just go natural and be proud of what GOD gave them. Note; I have never in my life seen someone not of African descent wearing an Afro kinky weave or wig. Thanks for your article.

  • A Sista’s Guide to Black Hair at the Job | Brown Sugar said:

    […] of What Would Thembi Do, has a great piece on how to navigate black hair at work: Technique #1: Default to Predictability. […]

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