Working While Black: When Your Boss Isn’t “Comfortable” With You Wearing Box Braids

November 5, 2015  |  

When I think of hairstyles that one might deem a little too…let’s just say “colorful,” I think mohawks. I think extreme dye jobs. I think any style that sits up too high, is too bright or is just way too distracting and would probably be frowned upon in the workplace.

But what about box braids?

If you ask me, box braids, which can be pulled up, worn down or twisted and turned into a whole host of tame styles, are not distracting at all. They should be suitable for any workplace. My sister is currently wearing some, and she’s a physical therapist. And you couldn’t keep my other sister from wearing them at the prestigious accounting firm she works for.

But according to my friend’s boss, they’re inappropriate.

My friend doesn’t work in your typical office environment. In fact, she doesn’t work in an office at all. She works in a showroom for an anal-retentive woman who sells and creates luxury home decor. Some clients come in to order things, and others call in, but my friend is the one who usually has to deal with all parties. Does she need to look well put together? Sure. Do box braids fit an interior design showroom? I guess not.

While chatting near the end of the workday last week, my friend told her boss that she was ready for a change in hairstyle. She regularly wears a TWA that is cut low on the sides, and when she wants a little excitement, my friend throws on a wig. But to prepare for the cold weather, she showed her boss a picture of some braids and said she was thinking of trying something different. Not braids in a bright color, just something simple. Her boss’ response?

“Ummm. I’m not comfortable with that.”

Comfortable? Why wouldn’t one be comfortable with some simple braids?

And that’s what my friend was trying to figure out. Feeling a bit slighted by her employer’s statement, a boss she has hasn’t always had a good rapport with, my friend turned up her eyebrow and simply said, “Okay then.”

Realizing that she may have said something ignorant, her boss tried to clean up her words. But she only made things worse by insulting my friend’s appearance and saying she didn’t want her to even try the style because it wouldn’t look right.

“I don’t know. It’s just that, you know, I don’t know if it would look the way you’re expecting. Those kinds of styles are more for people with long, slim faces. Yours is a little wider. They might drown you out. You know what I mean?”

Despite a sorry attempt to clean up her statement, my friend’s boss never changed her tune to say that the braids would be okay for the showroom. Nor did she try to explain why the style wouldn’t work for selling fancy pillows and such. But as the owner of the interior design business, that’s just what she gets to say and do.

Still, it sucks. And it’s somewhat discriminatory.

Discriminatory in the same way that it was prejudiced for the Pentagon to try and tell female service members that they couldn’t wear twists, “thicker braids” and most other popular protective hairstyles worn by women of color. While it makes sense if the styles are keeping the helmets of service members from fitting properly, if they’re not, it’s just flat-out discriminatory. Hence, the uproar over the statute, and hence, the reason the U.S. Army reversed their decision on Regulation 670-1.

My friend never said that she planned to do anything elaborate with the braids, and if her boss was worried, she could have at least told her to try and keep them pulled back and neat. But to just shut her down and not allow braids because they make the woman “uncomfortable”? Because they don’t fit with what one considers normal? Because they might distract or bother stuffy, wealthy White folks coming in to buy equally stuffy products? That’s unfair. And it’s an unfair reality for way too many people.

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