Owning Your Crown: The Importance of Celebrating Black Hair in Advertising

Isn’t authenticity one of the key principles the industry encourages brands to follow?

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Picture this: I’m a business affairs executive working at one of the most well-known creative agencies in the world. I’m in the office, and I look up as one of my co-workers gives me a familiar “good morning” head nod. I notice he is wearing an untied durag draped around his shoulders. Just then, another co-worker sporting a stylish hair pick sticking out of his afro also passes by and smiles and nods.

At first, I have a knee-jerk internal dialogue urging me to pull each aside and tell one to take off his durag and the other to take out his pick! Thankfully, I quickly checked myself. I was conflicted and admittedly disappointed in myself for even entertaining the notion that my two co-workers were “inappropriate” or “unprofessional” in the workplace. After all, I remember the profound disillusionment and insecurity I felt early in my career when I was warned against bringing “too much of myself” to work. For me, the subtext was that embracing my Black identity was not welcomed or accepted in professional spaces.

Today, Black Gen Z and millennials are confidently showing up to work, unapologetic about presenting their hair in ways suitable to the eyes of anyone other than themselves. We see hairstyles such as boho braids, cornrows, twist-outs, locs, silk presses, every type of blown-out or natural curl, afros, colorfully dyed low cuts and fades abound! These are the brilliant minds behind the multimillion-dollar creative ideas that drive billions of dollars in sales for multinational Fortune 500 and 100 companies.

It is becoming abundantly clear that working in an environment that celebrates diversity and champions individuality can lead to a surge of creativity that can take brands to the next level.

The current state of race-based hair discrimination

For as long as we have been allowed to climb the corporate ladder, Black people have continued to face waves of overt and covert discrimination in the workplace. Seemingly innocuous views and policies around professionalism have gaslit us into believing that Eurocentricity is the only acceptable standard. It comes as no shock that back in 2016, an MBA student’s discovery went viral when she Googled “unprofessional hairstyles for work” and received numerous image results of Black women with natural hair, while “professional” ones featured pictures of white women.

Today there is ongoing litigation across the country fighting for the right of Black people to simply show up to school and the workplace with the hair that naturally grows from their heads. The antiquated notion that how one wears their hair has any bearing on their competency or the quality of work they produce was never logically sound. That idea continues to make space for the ubiquitous cultural policing of Black people by perpetuating the notion that our appearance is a distraction or unprofessional.

This policing has given rise to the need for states to implement their version of The CROWN Act, legislation that protects against race-based hair discrimination, which is currently being blocked from passing into federal law. Just recently, a judge in Texas ruled that a Texas high school was not violating the state’s CROWN Act by punishing a Black teen over the length of his dreadlocks. Upon hearing the ruling, the distraught teen, whose refusal to cut his hair landed him in-school suspension since August of last year, exclaimed: “All because of my hair … I can’t get my education because of my hair. I can’t be around my peers and enjoy my junior year because of my hair?” Without question rulings like these are damaging to the psyche of children and adults alike.

Notes for the ad industry

The freedom to wear one’s hair in white-collar environments should not be a privilege enjoyed only by those working in creative industries. Truth be told, many industries such as law and finance have much work to do. Across the board, advertising should not be the exception, but the standard.

As creators and marketers, we not only position brands and reflect culture, but we also have the power to push the culture of society forward. Artists and creatives like musicians, poets and filmmakers have always led the pack toward cultural change; we must continue to do the same and not shy away from this superpower.

As an industry, we can benefit from focusing on the inclusion aspect of “diversity and inclusion,” and how that may or may not manifest in the workplace. Hiring Black talent is the easy part, but are you genuinely creating an atmosphere that allows us to feel comfortable enough to even meet our full potential?

As noted in a Harvard Business Review article, “The key to inclusion is understanding who your employees really are.” Understanding Black talent in the workplace demands not only shedding the racially-biased norms imposed on us, but also establishing an environment that encourages us to express our authentic selves. After all, isn’t authenticity one of the key guiding principles the industry encourages brands to follow?

Championing looks, cultures, perspectives and ideas with authenticity and inclusion isn’t just a moral or social imperative; it’s good for business. By challenging “standards” that are inherently exclusive, and creating safe and truly inclusive environments, brands can leverage untapped creativity and stories that can embed them into culture, build connections with audiences and help businesses grow.

We cannot be afraid to reflect the people who create the content in the work itself. It’s not enough for us to show up to work as ourselves, the nuances of who we are must be allowed to show up in the creative as well.