When the black co-worker throws shade at your fro

ESSAY - Maybe more people in the generation after me will embrace and encourage natural hair...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I have been ashamed of, knowingly damaged, rejoiced in and flaunted my hair all in the same week. Today I feel like rejoicing because I’m happily wearing a full fro, free of a headband to minimize its volume or social impact. I just hope my boss won’t protest.

It starts at about 6:15 a.m. every morning. I get up for work, wash it and it tangles. Tangles lead to 20 minutes of combing, picking, brushing, and dousing my natural curls in a homemade combination of DevaCurl’s Defining Gel, Mizani’s Moisture Stretch and Jane Carter’s Hair Nourishing Serum. I condition, comb, and condition until my upper arm muscles hurt.

I get on the downtown 1 at 116th Street. I sidestep and weave through the crowd looking for a seat. But as usual, there are no available seats.  Oh well. I need a seat by a window anyway. These seats are fro-friendly. These seats don’t force my hairstyle to bump into the wall behind me, making me crank my neck slightly downward to compensate for the roundness of my fro. The seats along the sides give me a slightly flat pattern on my hair like I slept on my back the night before. No bueno. I will stay standing until the MTA makes seats for a woman like me.

I get to my cubicle and I’m followed to my seat by an African-American co-worker. She pats my hair (without asking) and asks incredulously: “You are wearing the fro today?”

I respond: “I know it might not be law firm friendly, but this is how my hair looks in its natural state.”

We are overheard by an older blond lawyer now that we have moved our conversation to the pantry. The lawyer says, “It’s 2012. I like it.” I secretly love her comment and proceed to bond with her. It’s only 9:05 a.m. and my hair has surprised a black co-worker, but is praised by a white one. I guess black woman can be the hardest on each other. I brace myself for the comments I may get throughout the day.

By noon, the hair petter has returned to my desk to ask if my boss has commented on my hair. I haven’t seen her yet. Her eyes widen as if she emphatically wants to say, “I hope it goes well.” But I’m not worried. My boss has liked my hairstyles in the past and I’ve gotten an overall positive response from people throughout the day. I get back to work.

It’s 5:30p.m. and my boss hasn’t commented on or even glanced at my hair for an extended period of time. Yes! I can keep my job and my hair. I pack up my Tupperware and head to Whole Foods.

The cashier exclaims, “I love your hair!” I thank her. This woman goes on to say she has very wavy hair that would never make a full fro. It’s very frizzy and she straightens it every morning and puts it in a ponytail. That use to be my regimen. I tell her she should wear it out because it’s healthier for her hair. She agrees and I head out of the store.

It took a while for me to become comfortable with my choice to stop processing my hair. When I cut my hair off, the men I was dating complained and eventually left me. My co-workers at my previous job called me bold, but didn’t directly compliment my choice. I developed an insecurity that manifested in hoarding slim headbands and investing in long, flowing scarves to hopefully minimize the strong reactions of others.

But it was all worth it. Now I show people what I look like naturally and they have no choice but to show me that they accept me or they don’t. It feels so honest and liberating.

The weekend comes and I’m heading to Penn Station to get to my cousin’s third birthday party in New Jersey. I have Amy Winehouse on my iPod and a very swift stride when I’m interrupted by a closed gate. I discover that New Jersey transit doesn’t raise its gates until 5:00 a.m. As I search for breakfast, I run into a group of teenage boys with skateboards and backpacks. One of them mouths to me, “I like your hair.” I smile and feel a little hopeful.

Maybe more people in the generation after me will embrace and encourage natural hair.

A marketing and business development consultant based in New York and London, Christian McKenzie is sought after is her ability to connect complementary businesses. She is also known for her writing and self-produced video segments, and has worked with Future Proof Productions, NBC’s Oxygen Media for House of Glam and Running Russell Simmons, and Logicworks for Valentino: The Last Emperor. She holds a B.A. in English from Spelman College and an M.A. in Journalism from London College of Fashion.