the idea of ornament does not attempt to meet conventional standards, but it satisfies the soul of its creator.
-zora neale hurston
me: “i’m getting a double-helix piercing tomorrow.”
her: “is your job gonna be cool with that?”
i left the previous exchange with a friend really annoyed. whether my hair, piercing, tattoos or clothing, i’m sick of people feeling the need to question my adornment choices.
first, i’ve been obsessed with body art my entire life. i waited until my mid-twenties to get my first tattoo and all three are meaningful: eye of horus, marcus garvey quote and adinkra symbol. they represent an aspect of my identity that i made a conscious choice to share with the world. keeping my deliberate intention in mind, i’m bothered when people, too often well-meaning black folks, attempt to police my decisions.
black women undergo workplace assimilation and endure constant microaggressions not for fun, but because we’re told it’s necessary to ensure our success. straight hair, muted clothing, “it” handbags, no visible tattoos — we conform to white society’s definition of respectability and workplace appropriateness.
recently, a sister complimented my hair and said the last time she wore her natural hair to court (she’s an attorney) the judge and security guard didn’t recognize her. they refused to allow her to sit at a table reserved for lawyers, and she was forced to state on the record why she’d been denied a seat. i’m struck by her example because straight hair literally operated as a disguise; ironically, leaving her natural image unrecognizable by white peers.
policing black women’s adornment fails to question the system that decided “respectability” is a necessary component of success. my people did not define it, and i won’t be forced to comply with a standard that’s narrowly tailored for the purpose of marginalization.
i understand that my position is born not only from a spirit of rebellion, but also educational privilege. black women working in low-paying jobs or fighting chronic underemployment while supporting their families don’t have the option to forgo certain workplace norms regarding their physical presentation. but i do. as a result, those of us with similar privilege must work to widen restrictive spaces and fight the pressure to assimilate. whether we’re rocking stilettos, bow ties or dashikis, taking an unapologetic stance on our wholeness helps to make workplaces more tolerable.
i will adorn myself as i please and any professional space that finds my practice problematic is an affiliation that i’m blessed to do without. authenticity is the highest value. i graduated phi beta kappa from my undergraduate university, earned a law degree from a top tier institution, sit on the board of directors for a civil liberties organization, yet have natural hair, dark skin, tattoos and piercings. their definitions of respectability will never change unless we rebel.