Photograph — Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

After an image of former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, surfaced in which she sports what appears to be her hair in its natural state, the comments and reactions that followed on social media, ranging from praise and admiration to empathy, did indeed do a solid job of highlighting the problematic issue that still exists around Black hair in any workplace across the globe – it’s ‘unprofessional’. But isn’t there another glaring issue also attached to this re-awakening? One that involves how personal choices by influential people can make a huge difference?

Before and during the eight years Michelle Obama spent in the White House and on our screens, the idea of her hair being anything but straight probably never occurred to most people. In fact, it was pretty difficult to imagine Michelle rocking a fro, or curls (except for that one time when she ‘unveiled’ them), or whatever. In any case, she probably preferred to have and keep her hair straightened. Nothing to do with the demands of her position or White societal criteria of what constitutes a professional look.

However, literally a couple of months after her departure from the ‘political public eye’, it would seem she feels safe enough to ‘unleash’ her hair in all its kinky glory. While it comes across as her enjoying a similar moment as finally having the opportunity to let out that long trapped air from your lungs after a day of wearing a bra, as some comments online suggest, they’re not quite the same thing.

Unfortunately, the cause for concern, in this case, is not necessarily the fact that perceptions and attitudes towards Black hair in the workplace affect all and sundry and haven’t progressed much. It’s why Michelle Obama, of all people, has to conform to it, and what does such conformity say about the struggle to neutralise negative attitudes towards Black identity in the US, as well as general acceptance of it in other parts of the world?

Michelle as FLOTUS was a quintessential representation of the powerful Black woman; quality education, intelligence, style, class, sass, taste… you name it. In addition, her outgoing, down-to-earth and not-so-White-Housey personality won her uncountable accolades and the hearts of many globally. Yet, whether it was on Ellen, or at a fundraising dinner, or at a campaign, the wife of the president of the United States still looked like just that – the wife of the president of the United States. Apparently synonymous with having straight to wavy hair, no matter your race.

As ATTN: state in their article about the picture, renowned author Chimamanda Adichie rightly – sadly – previously noted that Barack Obama would not have become the 44th president of the US if Michelle did not have ‘professional’ hair. So, ‘professional’ hair was needed to win the election for her husband. How about after?

If you calculate how often Black women tend to change their hairstyles and such and then split it by half, Michelle Obama had at least 34 opportunities in eight years to let the world know that seeing a Black woman’s real hair should ordinarily not come as a surprise or newsworthy to anyone.

Growing up and living as a Black woman in the United States is arguably one of the hardest experiences historically or contemporarily. Thus, in a nutshell, it is understandable if middle and high school and college Michelle, like most Black women, had to submit to a relaxer or flat iron 80 percent of the time to be presentable, respected, taken seriously, and to fight her way to the top. Well, she got there.

I personally recall wondering a number of times, when I saw her on television or on the Internet, why the First Lady of the United States hadn’t quite fully joined the ‘Black hair, Black identity movement’ currently taking over the world by wearing her natural hair every now and then. Or why she couldn’t.

Now, with the strong assumption that an unwritten, unspoken, subtle microaggressive version of the policy against Black hair in the workplace exists in the White House, could Michelle’s influence as FLOTUS not address it adequately?

Policies surrounding Black hair in workplaces in the United States and outside of it may seem more relaxed because of the growing number of women wearing their hair in its natural state, and feeling more comfortable to wear it that way to work. But the discrimination still very much thrives.

Again, it’s possible Michelle Obama actually prefers her hair straight, and this trending picture is either her embracing her curls for the day or on her way to the salon, but her choices in the White House could have helped to show that racial identity transcends any workplace.

Choosing how you look to suit a workplace is already problematic in itself, however understandable in some cases. But letting that infringe upon your identity is something that can be helped.


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