Corporate dreadlocs and other stories

Back in 2008, I wrote a piece that argued thus, on the subject of my preferred “hairstyle”:

I am my hair. I am challenging, I am defiant, I do not apologize.

And the next time some Wall Street multimillionaire or Oxbridge-educated middle-aged perpetually entitled white British editor encounters a twenty-something <insertracehere> woman from the Caribbean, or someone with locs, he will pause.

He will pause because he will remember someone else who was more than the stereotype.

Someone who was more than just her hair, or her ancestry, or her age, or her gender, or her accent, or her taste in shoes.

Fast forward two years, and an interesting synchronicity of events. The first, an emailed question from a long-lost acquaintance, someone who knew me from my “long curly light brown hair” past and who I have not seen in a nigh on a decade: “how did you manage to grow a ras?”

The second, a post on the kimaspeak blog on the subject of “Corporate Locks” (H/T PM):

In spite of all the above bravado, though, the idea of bringing locs into my workplace terrified me. This was not Grenada, the Caribbean. This was London. This was the Square Mile, possibly the most conservative area in London; this was my office where there are not too many black people in the first place. Was I making the right decision personally but a wrong one professionally? I have worn braids and cornrows in the office before- my thinking was- they need to get used to it- but am I possibly pushing the boundaries a little bit too far?

Which felt like reading a transcript of my own internal monologues.

Like kimaspeak, I have worked and lived in London, and have been a part of the financial world there – an insular, conservative (and Conservative) world that is also overwhelmingly white and male. My employers, my colleagues, my contacts, did not know quite how to react to the educated, ‘well spoken’, dreadlocked Trinidadian female of indistinct racial origin and something of an ‘attitude problem’, in so far as I failed entirely to cower in the presence of those around me.

And it was much the same at the university I attended, where those on campus had a hard time figuring out why I was so unlike either the “Black British” or the “yardies”, why I did things like run for student office or speak up in class about the fallacy of homogenising “the Third World”. I bemused them still further with my attempts to explain why an “Afro-Caribbean” society did little to serve the students from the latter region who did not share either a cultural or even necessarily an ethnic background with those ostensibly represented by the “Afro”.

Because like kimaspeak, I too have a swagger – the swagger of a certain type of overachieving “prestige school” alumnus – and the bravado of someone who had never been indoctrinated with the pernicious idea that one’s place in society was contingent on the colour of one’s skin. Someone who had never been damned with faint praise  – “oh, but you speak so well”; someone who had never been expected to fail or written off as a delinquent on the basis of an abundance of melatonin.

And yet.

And yet when I am getting ready for a day filled with meetings, I pause. If I wrap my hair, as I am wont to do, what ‘signal’ with that give? How will my contacts react when they see me for the first time? Does this look too ‘ethnic’? Can I really moderate that panel at a conference where the only other people of my skintone will be serving canapés while I look the way I do?

These are the kinds of questions with which I assail myself. This is what living in the UK and Europe and the US has done to me.

I am the only person at my organisation who looks like me. Back to kimaspeak’s post:

Should you hide or change your hair to “fit in”? And the answer is poignant: it depends on the company, look at how top managers, especially blacks, wear their hair.

This led me to a dead end. What if your company has no black top managers? What then?

What then? Then I pause, take a deep breath, and decide I will wrap my hair if I feel like it.

Because there need to be more people like me – non-white, non-male – challenging the assumptions of what someone who does what I do should look like, or sound like, or dress like.