The Takeaway

The Pandemic Prevents White Preoccupation With My Hair

Working from home has an unintended benefit: White co-workers can’t get close enough to me to reach out and touch my tresses

Photo: Morsa Images/Getty Images

My natural hairstyle changes frequently, and pre-pandemic, I wore it in a short, tight, coily wash-and-go style or, other times, in small twists or flat-ironed. The style that elicited the most attention was my Afro, which was larger than Angela Davis’ signature hairstyle.

I was accustomed to inquiries about my ’do from White colleagues but hoped that in some way, conversations surrounding hair, Black beauty, and, at the very least, professionalism would have connected some dots for them. However, working in predominantly White spaces in all but one job taught me that the aforementioned does not resonate with many White people. White privilege tends to be their language of choice.

I’ve had some colleagues marvel at my Afro and others stand so close I take a step back to avoid feeling their breath on my face. I also knew my hair stirred slightly since I didn’t use hairspray to keep my Afro shaped. The close talkers looked at my hair, so I assume they wanted to touch it but didn’t dare. At least they maintained a sense of professional decorum.

As I started to exit, he said, “I just want to touch your hair. I’ve never felt hair like yours before.”

Except one who did not.

An older White man, who previously was a congenial and respectful colleague, blatantly disrespected me by attempting to touch my hair.

We were chatting in his office, and as I started to exit, he said, “I just want to touch your hair. I’ve never felt hair like yours before.” He didn’t ask; he stated what he wanted to do regardless if I co-signed it or not. It was the epitome of using his White privilege to try to control and take ownership of my Black hair and invade my personal space.

I said no.

Instead of letting the topic drop, he asked, “Why not?” At the time, I didn’t want to engage him in a conversation about my hair being my crown and the history of personal violation and abuse between White and Black people. Had he not heard of slavery? Had he not heard Solange’s aptly title song “Don’t Touch My Hair?” Or the 2019 Oscar-winning short animated film Hair Love? I also couldn’t vouch for his hands, which may or may not have been unclean. At the very least, his attempt to touch my hair was unprofessional.

He reiterated his inquiry, chuckling like it was the most normal thing to do.

I laughingly chastised him, something I wish I’d taken a firmer stance on. In retrospect, my laugh minimized the severity of the situation. Though I was greatly offended at his gall and White presumption that it was okay to touch my hair, I didn’t want to offend him and had concerns about workplace retaliation. Who I befriended professionally and who was considered an ally mattered.

As I walked to the door, he walked behind me and said, “There’s a piece of lint in your hair. Let me take it out for you.”

I believed he was lying and said, “Just leave it,” and briskly exited his office.

We were still affable after the hair-touching incident, but I often made it a point to avoid being within his arm’s reach to prevent a similar encounter. Unfortunately, it was not the first time a White person had been fascinated or wanted to take ownership of my hair.

Years ago, my hair was relaxed and cut similarly to Halle Berry’s ’90s tapered bob. I wanted a retro-ish look, and it was the perfect hairstyle for the corporate office of the luxury fashion brand I worked at. One other Black woman worked there, and she wore her long hair relaxed as well.

On one particular workday, my routine, Eurocentric-looking straight hair looked more like a well-shaped Afro because I had missed my hair appointment and decided to wash and air dry it. No flat ironing or curling. The White gaze made me self-conscious about my hair, yet I wore it in a ’fro without accouterments like stylized barrettes or a headband or even a twist out. I’d made it through most of the day unbothered by most and complimented by a few, so I felt relief until a colleague, a White woman whom I’ll call Karen, walked up to my desk, smiled, and asked “what happened” to my hair.

Another colleague, a Latino woman, had walked over and was now privy to the conversation. I responded to Karen, “I just blew it out.”

They both chuckled, and the Latino woman made a motion that looked like a bomb exploded. I was less offended by her because of her known eccentricities, but I was highly insulted by the White woman who recommended I once again wear my straight because it “looked better.” To emphasize her point, she demonstrated “straight” with hand gestures then strolled off, chuckling.

After that, I always wore my hair straight at that job and several years later until I did the big chop and started experimenting with natural styles.

Because of the pandemic, the pivot to working from home has saved me from quizzical looks about my hair, questions about how often I wash my hair or sleep with “hair like that,” and, of course, attempts to touch it. I now opt for colorful headwraps or big two-strand Miss Celie twists and comfortably sit with my camera on for Zoom meetings. I love the luxury of not having to explain my hair to my White and non-Black colleagues. And, occasionally, I keep my camera off during meetings so no one knows how my hair is styled. While it may seem like a small thing, not being under White people’s scrutiny thanks to working from home has increased my confidence about discussing diversity, equity, inclusion, race, and, of course, hair.

Essayist + lifestyle writer. Bylines in Thrillist, Catapult, Essence, The Globe and Mail, Atlanta Journal-Constitution + more. Literary agents, holler.

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