Smart Thinking: Opinion
Don’t Touch My Hair: Inclusion Week
At KPMG’s Inclusion Week event last night, Don’t Touch My Hair explored what it means to be black and mixed race in majority white environments.
Our impressive panel shared their insights from childhood, academia, society, the media and the workplace. Guest speakers included writer-broadcasters Johny Pitts and Emma Dabiri, Head of Financial Planning & Analysis at Willis Towers Watson, Netsai Mangwende, and KPMG People Leader in the Office of the General Counsel, Phyllisea Peltier.
In my experience most people don’t like talking about race. They definitely don’t like talking about racism. I have a white British dad and a black Jamaican mum. Growing up, it wasn’t hard to see the huge gap in how individuals would speak to, treat or judge my parents differently.
The truth is, most people who don’t experience racism think of ‘big acts’ or nasty comments. But often it is the small everyday acts from others which psychologists call ‘micro-aggressions’ that bring race to the fore and over time can have a lasting impact on a persons self-esteem.
So why on earth are we talking about hair at KPMG? And black hair in particular?
Black or mixed race people often have a story about their hair. Usually this starts in school with teachers, parents, other children finding it impossible not to fixate on the different textures and appearances of black hair.
Like our amazing panellists, I grew up dodging uninvited invasions of my personal space. The Don’t Touch My Hair event I curated for Inclusion Week was a way of explaining that, for some black and mixed people, their hair is a source of concern, conflict, shame or (dramatic as it sounds) identity crisis that comes from growing up in a white world.
And as adults, shaving your Afro off or spending a fortune to chemically straighten or hide your real hair– to ‘fit in’ or to ‘look professional’ as two of our panellists explained – isn’t ever just about ‘looking smart’. Just as Johny wondered if growing an Afro at 16 was about reasserting his identity, or Phyllisea questioned whether having natural hair would ‘look bad’ at work, I think shaving my head at 9 years old on the Isle of Wight was an attempt to appear less black and minimise my difference.
These unconscious thought processes travel with you into the workplace and can impact how confident you feel, how able you are to build rapport with others and how ‘safe’ you think a workplace culture is. It’s a voice saying “You automatically stand out…DO YOUR BEST TO ASSIMILATE!”
And that’s exactly why it’s more important than ever that we continue to make progress on inclusion and build a workplace as free from bias as possible. Unconscious bias in all its forms impacts extraordinary people – even after they’ve made peace with their hair.
By Ashley Thomas
Inclusion & Diversity Advisor, KPMG in the UK