One of my favorite ways to wear my hair is in long red knotless braids. At one former workplace, the hairstyle drew offensive questions and statements from my employer.
Are you in a gang?
I don’t think that color is appropriate for our workplace.
You normally look so professional. What happened?
Whenever I change my hairstyle or attempt a new look in the workplace, I have often felt racial anxiety steaming off many of my co-workers. As a result, I have suppressed my curiosity and desire to try other colors that might be deemed unprofessional even though my performance and drive never changed, despite microaggressions and discriminatory comments.
It made me question if my coworkers ever did take me seriously.
So even before the recent news about her alleged cannabis use, I understood what Sha’Carri Richardson, the 100-meter U.S. Olympic track qualifier, was going through when she was criticized for her unique look.
I know all too well that Black women are no stranger to the confusing ways that this country exalts our beauty and appropriates our culture then turns around and condemns our style and versatility.
Track and field is no stranger to the individuality that Black women bring to the sport. Time and again we are reminded of their ability to compete, win, and do it while looking fly. That’s why you see Black women across the country cheering on Richardson. We see her originality, know her capabilities and want success for every woman who steps into life with orange hair, long nails, lashes and tattoos.
Unfortunately, there are more instances when Black women athletes are exalted on the field, court, and track but oftentimes disrespected, undervalued and not taken seriously in everyday life. Now, more than ever, the Sha’Carri Richardsons of this world need that support whether they are on or off the track.
When Black women magnify and lift each other up, the impossible becomes possible. That includes Richardson competing — and winning — after learning of her biological mother’s death to make her family proud (she cites grief as the reason for her cannabis use).
It includes Richardson’s girlfriend helping pick her orange hair color for the U.S Olympic Track and Field trials. Richardson told USA Today: “She said it, like, spoke to her, the fact that it was just so loud and vibrant, and that’s who I am.”
It includes the way Richardson’s grandmother embraced her after she qualified. “My grandmother is my heart. My grandmother is my superwoman,” Richardson said.
Richardson is setting the scene and showing how truly complex and multifaceted Black women and Black people are in this country. Her representation is not only proof that we can compete in sports like track and field but that we succeed in all aspects of life.
Unfortunately, the success of Black women continues to be erased and muffled regardless of how we show up on the track or in the office. Stigma, discrimination and judgment follow us. So when we show up to interviews and workplaces with colorful hair, long nails, lashes and tattoos we aren’t taken as seriously even if we are eminently qualified.
But that individuality doesn’t negate the fact that we can do our jobs — and do them well. Black women can show up to their workplaces and be successful no matter how we look, and no matter how others feel about our looks.
Alert: It doesn’t matter how Black women show up to the workplace because we will experience microaggressions even if we conform to what is considered professional and assimilates into white workplace culture. Regardless, our appearance will inevitably be unfairly scrutinized and disrespected.
It’s important to note that professional athletes have more freedom in their outward appearance than most people but they can also experience stigma in their sport.
Florence Griffith Joyner, nicknamed “Flo-Jo,” an Olympic track and field athlete and the fastest woman of all time, was also stigmatized in her sport. Richardson’s style has been compared to Flo-Jo’s long hair, long nails, and a bold personality. Flo-Jo was heavily criticized for how she showed up to the track, constantly questioned about the length of her nails.
Imagine being the “fastest woman of all time,” coming out of your sprint with smoke still on your heels and a reporter approaches you. They don’t ask how great it feels to beat everyone again. Instead, they question your ability to do it with long nails and long hair.
No matter how they show up to their sport, Black women athletes will be hypersexualized for their athletic physique or criticized for their grit and effort during a game.
So, remember when you see a Black woman with colorful hair, long nails, lashes, and/or tattoos that she is capable, successful, and should be taken seriously. loved and supported — even if she’s not an Olympic athlete.