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What is up with Black Women and their Hair?

The relationship with our hair and the key to Diversity and Inclusion in Corporate America.

A photo of Birungi Ives, taken by her husband, Jamie Ives

The relationship with my hair reflects society’s journey of self-hate, self-awareness, self-love, and re-birth!

When I was a little girl, I wanted long, bouncy, shiny, wavy, hair. I would assume, a lot of girls and probably some boys, wanted the same! According to the magazines and shampoo commercials at the time, those attributes contributed to the epitome of beautiful hair, the ultimate achievement. With that crown and glory, anything and everything was possible in life.

Hair and Corporate America

Someone may ask at this point, “How does a Black woman’s hair relate to this recent crisis of conscience in the world of tech and corporate organizations?”. For the majority of my early life, my sense of self-worth was attached to how my hair looked. If it was too nappy, too stiff (i.e. lacked body or movement), too black, too brown, too frizzy, too short, too broken, too greasy, too dry, my sense of self-worth could be defeated before I walked out the door. I felt that if my hair did not look a certain way, I would not be accepted. I would not size up to the socially accepted norm of beauty! I would not belong. I would not be supported. I would not be worthy. Yes, it was that deep. Honestly, I did not know how deep it truly was, at the time!

The tech and corporate world are abuzz about Diversity and Inclusion. Companies are scrambling to get their Diversity and Inclusion “house” in order. They are hiring this fully qualified Black woman for their board, and that fully qualified Black woman as a C-suite executive. Companies are holding focus groups to get feedback on how they should shape their Diversity and Inclusion efforts. Some CEOs and founders are looking to social platforms to asks their audience directly, to learn where and how to make the necessary changes to become more Diverse and Inclusive. The press is going mad over it, writing articles on the latest acts of discrimination that were swept under the rug or the lack of response from leadership at companies that clearly reflect a low representation of marginalized groups in their organizations and especially in leadership.

This may be considered a huge jump, from hair to worthiness, but it isn’t!

From the figurative galley, I can hear the shouts stating, “Well that is not my problem! I can not control how you feel about your hair or yourself!” However, I am not asking those shouters to take on the issues of how I felt about my hair or how I felt about myself. Those are issues that I had to address and address alone. They were my responsibility. However I will tell you, what was not my responsibility was the context. It is OUR responsibility! The context that reaffirmed my feelings of unworthiness, being unsupported, outside of the group, and unaccepted.

In regards to my hair, growing up in the United States in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s, I did not see normalized examples of Black women of all shades and all hair types celebrated for their greatness, their diverse beauty, and their intellect. I did not see examples of these women as magnificent examples of power and unwavering confidence, in positions, such as CEO or President of the country. I did not see Black women with afros standing tall next to our Forefathers in my History class textbook, ready to sign the Declaration of Independence. I did not see Black women in African braids, leading the charge of scientific and medical innovation in mass media. Although, there were a lot of other marginalized groups left out of that equation and missing from those pictures, but I am telling you my story.

What did I see?

Watching television, I saw the amazing Black mother in “Good Times” barely keeping her head above water in the “Projects”. I saw Black women on magazine covers with fairer skin and relaxed hair that seemed to replicate the socially acceptable and commonly featured beauty of a White woman. I saw Black women pictured as “mammies” on the label of my syrup bottle. I saw Black women as slaves in my history books. I saw Black women as sexual objects in film and on television. If this is what I saw, if this was the context, then no wonder it would be hard for me to imagine myself as the top scientist in the world, the CEO of a major global corporation, or as President of the United States of America. Where were the examples of excellence that looked like me and had my African coils? They were hardly anywhere to be seen when I was growing up. One evening, when my mother came home from working as a Law Librarian at a top law firm in the financial district in Boston, Massachusetts, I asked her why she wore a wig. She told me that she did not feel accepted to wear braids or look too ethnic, so the wig was easier. Braids are a beautiful cultural expression and an easy way to keep Black hair neat and low-maintenance. My mother wore her braids under her wig. If that was not symbolism for the societal problem at large, then I do not know what is.

Now, do not get me wrong, there were a few featured examples of Black Female Excellence that were present in my youth, including my mother, family members, and friends. However, in media and school books, they were portrayed as more of the exceptions, than the rule. So, why would I risk striving for greatness, if I was not going to have the support on the way up and to stay there? Why risk having my negative thoughts proven beyond a doubt? It was safer not to strive too high or dream too big! If you know me, I would not accept that. I was not settling. I eventually sought a different context!

Context

Today, with media determined to expose what is behind the curtain of the Great Oz, CEOs, and founders of major global tech and corporate organizations have started to scramble and scratch their heads about, Where are all the women and people of color?, Do they have the skills that we are looking for?, Why are they not clambering down the doors?, and Why are we not seeing a significant increase of representation of marginalized groups in our organizations or members of those groups bringing their ideas to the table for investment, with all of our current efforts?. These leaders must ask themselves, Are we providing the context?.

One of the first places, where I found this context, was at college.

Due to the inaccurate and limited representation of Black female excellence in the areas of business, mathematics, and sciences in our history books, media and advertising, a social context was created and supported that I, and people like me, were not worthy of achieving greatness in these areas. That influenced the decisions I made about my education and the jobs that I initially pursued. I went to an all women’s college, called Mount Holyoke College. Mount Holyoke College is a Seven Sisters college. The Seven Sisters (Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Barnard, Smith and Vassar) are the sisters colleges to the seven original Ivy League colleges (Brown, Columbia, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale). The Ivy League colleges were originally only for men. These Seven Sister colleges were founded to provide an equal calibre of education for women, to level the playing field per say. I did not fully realize this at the time, but I made the decision to attend Mount Holyoke, because I wanted to learn in a context that supported unlimited achievement and provided easily accessible examples of greatness, by women and women of color, throughout various disciplines. The gentleman that interviewed me for Brown University, asked me, ‘Why are you applying to Mount Holyoke College?, It is an all-girls school., It is not an accurate reflection of society.’ Now, I can clearly see that I craved, sought, and needed a context that “society” did not provide, in order to foster my own greatness! I needed a context where I knew I would be supported to pursue anything that I wanted to achieve, regardless of what my hair looked like. It was at Mount Holyoke College, that I cut all my hair off for the first time in my life. My hair did not define me. My belief in what I was capable of achieving, did! Mount Holyoke and the many examples of women of all colors, all backgrounds, and of all hair types achieving greatness that it provided, greatly contributed to setting the nurturing stage and the supportive context of my success!

What do you do?

This is exactly what these CEOs and founders need to create, in order to support the success of Diversity and Inclusion in their organizations. They have to provide the context, pathways to achievement, continuous support, and ultimately more examples of people of color, various physical ability, women, and varying sexual orientation and gender affiliation in positions of leadership. Similar to me attending Mount Holyoke College, you will see people from these marginalized groups gravitate to organizations that provide ample examples and the corporate context that supports their growth and greatness. That is how you will see increased Diversity and Inclusion.

In my world, leadership in a tech or corporate organization will include Black women, with an afro crowned in a sheen of glory or braids that swing with unwavering confidence, ushering in these additions to the team and proclaiming with pride that here they will find opportunities for success for all! The new additions will believe them. Why? Because these women are the proof of the company providing just that!

Calling all CEOs, founders, and executive leaders!

How do you create this context? Me!

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