Hair Styling Both Personal And Professional For Women Of Color

Comedian Chris Rock's new documentary ''Good Hair'' explores the complicated social and political implications of hair for people of color. Host Michel Martin talks about the concept of ''good hair'' (usually associated with straighter styles) with a group of women who specialize in career development, employment law ... and hair. Joining the conversation: Carol Henley, director of the Executive Leadership Honors Program for Howard University School Of Business; Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; long time stylist Marlynn Spires and Michelle Breyer, co-founder of the blog NaturallyCurly.com.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, he's a two-time Oscar winner for best movie score, a lover of music of all kinds and a survivor of Argentina's dirty war, a conversation with the multi-faceted Gustavo Santaolalla. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about good hair. We know, it's not politically correct. But if you're an African-American, especially a woman, you know what that means. It means straight, not curly, not kinky, not the texture most people are actually born with. And you also probably know the lengths women and some men will go to to get it, even in the so called post racial, post black, is beautiful era. If you don't, Chris Rock's new documentary "Good Hair,' which opens next week, will shed some light on the subject.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Good Hair")

Mr. CHRIS ROCK (Actor): What's the definition of good hair?

Unidentified Woman #1: Something that looks relaxed and nice.

Unidentified Man: If you're hair is relaxed, my people are relaxed. If you're hair is snappy, they're not happy.

MARTIN: Natural permed, weed, relaxed Afro twist locks, this may seem like personal choices. But if they are personal choices, we wanted to know why there are still so much pressure to wear one's hair a certain way. Why do so many women, especially of color, still spend so much money and time on a certain look? Is it because of cultural pressure? Lack of ethnic pride? Or is it because a natural do as opposed to relaxed or permed hair could leave women high and dry professionally?

We decided to call a group of women, who think about work place issues or hair or both every day. Joining us here in Washington is Carol Henley, she's the director of the Executive Leadership Honors Program for Howard University School of Business, where she advices students entering the workplace. We're also joined by Barbara Arnwine, she's executive director of the Lawyers Community for Civil Rights Under Law. With us from Detroit, which some called the black hair style capital, is Marlynn Spires. She's been a stylist for more than two decades and works at Detroit's Cross Culture Hair Salon. And from Austin, Texas Michelle Breyer, she's the co-founder of the Web site NaturallyCurly.com. It's an online community and Web site for woman with curly and kinky hair. Thank you all so much for being with us.

Ms. CAROLINE HENLEY (Director, Executive Leadership Honors Program, Howard University School of Business): Thank you, Michel.

Ms. BARBARA ENWIND (Executive Director, Lawyers Community): Thank you.

Ms. MARLENE SPIRES (Stylist, Cross Culture Hair Salon): Thank you having us.

Ms. MICHELLE BRIAR (Co-Founder naturallycurly.com): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I'm going to put each of you on the spot. How are you wearing your hair right now, Carol?

Ms. HENLEY: Well…

MARTIN: I can see you. So, you can't lie.

Ms. HENLEY: It sort of a mixture. It sort of, it's curly. I usually get my hair straightened, but right now it's not straightened. It's not permed. It's more on my natural side.

MARTIN: Okay. Barbara?

Ms. ARNWINE: Yes, I'm wearing braids with extensions and curly ends.

MARTIN: Okay. Marlynn, what are you doing?

Ms. SPIRES: I'm wearing my hair relaxed. It's short and it's relaxed.

MARTIN: Okay. And Michelle?

Ms. BREYER: Big and curly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Big and curly. Okay, in the spirit full disclosure. How would you say, I'm wearing two strand twists, there it is all my hair, it's all natural hair. And in fact, I have never - if people care about this and I'm not making it judgment about it - I have been wearing my natural since I was nine years old, which is its own…

Unidentified Woman #2: Wow.

MARTIN: …interesting story. So, Marlynn, I'm going to start with you. You have a unique vantage point because you style both natural and relaxed hair. And I wanted to ask you, is there a trend to which of your clients or how your clients choose how they're going to wear their hair? What do they tell you?

Ms. SPIRES: Most clients want convenience. So, a lot of clients do get their hair relaxed. Usually, the people that get their hair natural, they wear their hair natural, have a lighter texture. Their hair may be curlier and not as tight…

MARTIN: Why do you say relaxed hair is more convenient? I would argue - it requires more maintenance. You got to get the, you know - (unintelligible) tell me why you think relaxed is more convenient?

Ms. SPIRES: Relaxed hair is more convenient because you don't have to, when you're in the workplace, you can just get up and just curl it and go. You can just wrap it and go. If you want to go to the pool, you can just get in the pool and then get up and blow it dry and go. It's more convenient hairstyle for most people.

MARTIN: Okay. Carol, Howard School of Business is known for intensely grooming its students to get noticed by major corporations. It's considered a feeder school to many of the major corporation and investment houses. What do you tell your students if they ask you: What's the success look? What would you tell them?

Ms. HENLEY: Well, first of all, we tell the males and females two different things. And since we're mainly talking about the females, right now we mainly tell them: Look, your hair needs to be neat. It needs to be controlled. Nowadays, as different from the past, you know, braids weren't accepted and a lot of things, if you were looking to go into corporate America or the financial institutions. And many of them are now accepting even the braids if they're very neat, maybe combed, pulled back, put in a bun and so forth.

However, anytime you go away from the norm, you might be in the very conservative environment sort of keeping yourself from getting an opportunity.

MARTIN: When you say, you know, braids, even braids might be accepted. This is an ancient hair style. If you look on the, you know, hieroglyphs in Egypt, if you look at ancient art, the braids have been worn for centuries. So, why do you think even braids? Is it still considered a radical hairstyle or somehow too ethnic?

Ms. HENLEY: Not so much for women, for men, yes, but not so much for women. And that's why. I've seen braids all kinds of ways. So, and I'm just and I've seen students who wear the long braids. So, wearing the long braids may not be as conducive for the corporate environment. But when I've seen them pull it back and put in a little bun or something like that, it makes it a little bit easier to get in the door. And they're not going to say to you, no, you can't come in. And there are some environments that welcome them. It just depends on the culture of that particular company.

MARTIN: Have corporations have actually told you this is, but not that? And what have they told you? This is what we want to see, this is what we don't want to see.

Ms. HENLEY: In the past, I've had companies pull me aside and say, we really want that student, but I know they won't get through our interview process if their hair is like that. So, can you talk to them because we legally can't say it. But this was a few years ago that a company - several companies actually told me this.

MARTIN: About what? Is it natural hair overall or just like braids or something like that?

Ms. HENLEY: It was a fro…

MARTIN: …an Afro?

Ms. HENLEY: At this time, one of the students had a fro that was just really way out there. You know, it was all over the place. Another time it was a fact that the - and this was a male student - his hair was long. And although he pulled it back in a pony tail very neatly, you know, that was an issue. But for the most part, in the school of business, the students may come in with relaxed hair and then after they get their, you know, within the first semester, they get braids and what have you. And I've seen the students with braids still get the internships. But most of them are not wearing way out hairstyles. They have more conservative hairstyles with the braids.

MARTIN: Barbara, I'm going to bring - come to you next. You're an attorney and I still think that we needed to define what is way out there? What is that we're calling way out there? Barbara, you specialize in civil rights and discrimination in employment issues. Is there a standard? Have you ever litigated this question of what you can and cannot wear in the workplace? And does natural hair fall under the rubric of something that you had to fight about?

Ms. ARNWINE: Well, it's very interesting. It's comes up a lot in cases because, unfortunately, sometimes people make judgments. Remember the famous case here out of D.C. involving a young lady and her braids in the J.W. Marriot, I believe it was. And the case, you know, was basically whether or not her look was so radically different than that of other employees that she was not looking professional. This was a case I think some 20 years ago.

In any event, that case was found that the employer was discriminating against her because she was wearing a style that was associated more with one race than with another. And this was indeed an expression of this particular race's, you know, hairstyling preference. What we will find is that in federal law, generally, you are protected against discrimination on the basis of your race.

And if you're hair, you're phenotype, meaning the way you look, you know, your nose size, your lip size, et cetera, or your color is determined to be one of the factors that somebody is using to screen you out. And that is a factor that's associated with more one race than the other, then usually that's going to be the base of a racial discrimination claim.

MARTIN: Then why do you think it is still the case that many women who we see in highly visible positions wear their hair relaxed or straightened, certainly not the texture that is most closely associated with African-Americans per se. Why is that?

Ms. ARNWINE: Because people, it's easier to go with the flow, and there's a Euro standard in this country, a European-woman look, and people find that it's easier to go with the flow, that if you don't, you know, buck the system, that people will assume that you're fine, you're safe, you're okay.

You know, I wear my hair in braids, as you can see, and I have worn them in braids for years, and I sit at the top of my profession. And I meet sisters, you know, all the time at the top of their profession with short Afros, with, you know, with dreds, with all kinds of looks. It all depends on, I think, the way that you handle yourself always, the way you carry yourself. You know, a woman's hair, as my dad used to tell me, is her glory, it's her crown, is her glory, and you always had to have it looking in a very nice way.

So I think part of the issue, unfortunately, is that there are people who do stereotype, and they look at you and they start thinking about Lakisha(ph) and Laquita(ph), and they start, you know, playing all those stereotypical games. Well, that's racism, and that's not to be tolerated.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about hair. Our conversation's occasioned by the opening of Chris Rock's new documentary "Good Hair," which examines the preoccupation with what we're calling - what should we call it? The sort of European-centered-looking or European aesthetic in hair but for women who are not necessarily European.

Michelle, I'm going to read from your Web site. It kind of gives you the statement of purpose of your hair - of you Web site, which is NaturallyCurly.com. We asked ourselves: Why do women with curly hair feel they must chemically treat it, iron it, relax it, blow dry it and otherwise utterly beat the life out of their hair simply to be embraced by society?

Curly hair is natural. A person should be able to embrace her curls, love them just the way they are. If she wants to straighten, that's fine too, but no one should feel she must change a fundamental part of her appearance simply to be accepted by society.

Here's the kicker. Michelle, you're not African-American. You're white and you're Jewish.

Ms. BREYER: Yes.

MARTIN: What's your hair story? Why did you feel moved not only to embrace your - to feel that you had to embrace your naturally curly hair but also to make it a cause?

Ms. BREYER: I think all women that I've known growing up, we all faced the same type of bias, that straight hair was acceptable and curly hair was not. One of the reasons there's such a sense of fellowship on the site is everyone, whether they're black or white, has faced some kind of battle.

We've been called names. We've tried to get our hair to look a certain way that was, quote-unquote, "acceptable." We've had people with hairstyles who didn't understand how to work with it, who viewed it as something to fix.

So it really is something that affects women of all races. You know, I…

MARTIN: Why do you think this persists? I mean, and I understand that you've had professional experiences with this. You formerly worked at ABC News, as did I, and you've actually - you had people that would tell you: Do something with that hair.

Ms. BREYER: Well, I - yeah, I did a business show there, and when I first showed up, they looked at me and it was like, okay, we've got to do something with that hair. You know, can you wear it back? We need to get an image consultant.

And I've been a newspaper reporter for most of my career, so this was like, wait a second, you know, I'm here talking about what's happening in the business news for the week. Why do I - why does it matter what my hair looks like?

And I've interviewed other TV personalities, both Caucasian and African-American, who have curly hair who face that same, that same bias. I think that society is just not comfortable with texture for some - I think it's changing, because you see so many more people in pop culture, you know, actresses and musicians who are wearing their hair curly, but it has been a battle to get people to change their perceptions.

MARTIN: Is it something about the corporate - I've heard a number of you say, well, the artistic environment, for example. I mean, if you - any artistic environment, if you look at an ad for, you know, The Gap or anybody who wants to be considered sort of fashion forward, they'll have people with different textures of hair. But in the corporate - is there something about the corporate environment, Carol, that - something about curly, curly is dangerous? What does curly represent?

Ms. HENLEY: Well, for instance, it just depends on whether the environment is very conservative and whether or not that individual is going to be in front of their clients or their potential customers, and sometimes if it's real curly and real wild-looking, the client may say, is this person of the aptitude or the experience that I need handling my account, and so forth.

MARTIN: Well, what does curliness have to do with whether you can do accounting?

Ms. HENLEY: It shouldn't, it shouldn't have anything to do, but you know have everything is about perception, you know, and until they know the - your expertise and know what you are capable of, and that's why as you see people move up that ladder, they take more latitude because everybody knows what they contribute to the bottom line. It's getting in the door that sometimes it could be a problem, because, you know, when you're first trying to get in the door, and I don't think curly should be a problem.

MARTIN: Marlynn, what about you? What do you think? What do your clients tell you? Do they say that I need to keep my hair straight to get in the door, or what do they say?

Ms. SPIRES: Most people actually do get their hair straight to get in the door, and once they're there, and they show what they can do and how good they are at their job, they then may try to change and go more natural.

MARTIN: Michelle, I'm going to ask you this question, just because you've kind of been on all sides of it. You've been sort of in the media. You consult with people, talk to them about how you address these issues. What do you think would change this? For example, what if Michelle Obama - and I'm not telling her what to do - were to wear braids?

Ms. BREYER: Well, we actually thought about that, and we had an artist create looks for her with natural hair, everything from braids, dreadlocks, a little teeny-weeny Afro. We thought she looked really great.

I think it's going to take someone like that. I have an uncle who kept on telling me that I should send a letter to Condoleezza Rice to tell her to go natural. I think you're going to have to see someone in a position of power -and I think there are a lot of women out there, we've pointed them out, who do have natural hair, but they may not be in the mainstream.

But you're going to have to start changing the perception that natural hair is in some way not as professional as straight hair, and it's going to have to be some risk-takers out there, people who are willing to make a statement and, you know…

MARTIN: Okay, Barbara, final thought from you. What would change it, very quickly?

Ms. ARNWINE: Having women in positions of power and women who have boldness in their lives, who are (unintelligible). So I'm really excited about the fact that there are women CEOs coming up, and I think we are going to start changing this whole dynamic and we're going to get rid of the, you know, blonde and blue-eyed standard, and we're going to move to a standard where women can be who they are, and legally that's what the law allows.

MARTIN: Barbara Arnwine is executive director of The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Carol Henley is director of the Executive Leadership Honors Program at Howard University School Of Business. They were both here in Washington, D.C., with me. Marlynn Spires is a veteran stylist with Detroit's Cross-Culture Hair Salon. She joined us from WDET. And Michelle Breyer is co-founder of the Web site NaturallyCurly.com. She was with us from Austin, Texas. And as far as I'm concerned, you all have good hair.

Ladies, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HENLEY: Thank you.

Ms. ARNWINE: Thank you.

Ms. SPIRES: Thank you.

Ms. BREYER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Coming up, Gustavo Santaolalla, two-time Oscar-winner for Best Movie Score.

Mr. GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA (Musician): Big portions of the scores that I've made have been composed before the movies were even shot. I mean, the whole score of "Brokeback Mountain," I did before they even shot one frame.

MARTIN: That conversation is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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