Updated Tuesday, July 6 at 3:30 p.m. PT.
When Richardson’s entire aesthetic might be considered Black, it’s a win for us to see her at the top of the Olympic team.
On June 19, 21-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson solidified her spot on Team USA after winning the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.86 seconds. As the world watched the phenom take her victory lap, orange hair in the wind, arms stretched wide, with acrylic nails as long as they come, there was a certain group whose pride swelled the most: Black women.
On Friday, the world was shocked as news of her suspension due to cannabis consumption took over the headlines, with Richardson ultimately apologizing for her use and explaining she turned to marijuana after the death of her biological mother. And on Tuesday evening, USA Track and Field confirmed she will not be part of the United States’ 4×100 team at the Tokyo Olympics.
The vilification of this young woman is something all too familiar to a certain group, and that is why so many Black women have rallied behind her, offering our support via social media. Ultimately, though, there is another story based on a double standard that must be told.
Her recent record-setting races and catapult onto the world stage might mean the world is finally ready to recognize that those of us with bright hair and long nails are still more than capable of being outstanding leaders in our professions. Hair, nails and cosmetics serve as convenient proxies for race for many people. When Richardson’s entire aesthetic might be considered Black, it’s a win for us to see her at the top of the Olympic team.
Many Black women who choose to wear their hair and nails like Richardson are prevented from succeeding in the workforce, as research shows women who keep their hair natural are less likely to get jobs. For years, Black women have been ridiculed, ostracized and persecuted for the way we choose to wear our hair and nails—as if our cosmetic choices directly correlate to our values or work ethic. From former WJTV news anchor Brittany Noble who was fired for wearing her natural hair on air; to Chastity Jones, an Alabama woman whose job offer was rescinded because her dreadlocks were deemed to violate the company’s grooming policy, the unjust policing of our hair choices puts Black women in a box and raises an already high glass ceiling in the name of “professionalism.”
Richardson’s nails have also attracted undue attention, and this isn’t the first time that a stellar Black female runner’s fingers were more important to the public than her feet. Florence Griffith Joyner, often known as Flo-Jo, is the fastest woman of all time: She earned five Olympic medals and set records for the women’s 100 meter and 200 meter races, which she still holds today. Unfortunately, Flo-Jo’s nails overtook many of her other accomplishments—she was called a “glamourpuss” for four-inch, tiger-striped nails during the 1988 Olympic trials, and the press often focused on her style instead of her athleticism.
For many Black women, going to the nail salon is more than just picking their favorite color or design. It’s also weighing the pros and cons of what an employer or officer may think of them because of their nails. In fact, Twitter abounds with thoughts from Black women about the propriety of long nails. One mother described her daughter’s nails being called “ghetto” by a teacher before celebrating how proud she was about her daughter graduating from college. White people may need to read between the lines on these statements, but as a Black woman, connecting her daughter’s nails and her ultimate success was not lost on me. We know we lose opportunities and momentum because of our cosmetic choices.
Professionalism as we know it is rooted in a western standard of acceptability. This is why men are expected to wear suits to work instead of caftans or why baseball hats are the norm while kufi caps draw an inquisitive look. “Professionalism has become coded language for white favoritism in workplace practices that more often than not privilege the values of white and Western employees and leave behind people of color,” wrote Aysa Grey in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
This is why statutes such as the CROWN Act, which prohibits race-based discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyles, had to be introduced. Black people had to create legislation for permission to wear their hair as it naturally grows from their scalp—and in 2020 alone, 25 states considered but did not pass the legislation into law.
In 2016, I secured a position under Dallas Mayor Rawlings on the Grow South Initiative. At the time I was 23 and my hair was bright red. Aside from the stares I got when entering meetings, I also received copious amounts of unsolicited advice from well-meaning elders to “tone down” my hair. Never mind my ambition, studiousness, integrity or commitment to the citizens of southern Dallas—it was almost as if they couldn’t hear me over my hair color.
Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, who also rocks bright red hair, tweeted a similar thought: “My hair color really makes some of you so mad because it grates against your classist, misogynoir notions of what a successful Black woman should look like. I refuse to wear the uniform and everything about my look is intentional.”
“Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me. I am who I am, doing what I came to do.” Thee Audre Lorde.— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) June 24, 2021
The game of respectability politics Black people are expected to play to be deemed “professional enough” has to change. I now work as a development associate at For Oak Cliff, a community organization in Dallas, and often wonder if our donors would look at me differently if my hair was still that bright red color. Would they think I’m less capable or trustworthy?
For a white, pink-haired woman like Therese Tucker—the CEO of BlackLine who bootstrapped her company to a billion-dollar IPO—hair color doesn’t seem to matter at all. For many women, our professional performance includes irrelevant considerations like our hair and nails, no matter their color. This type of appearance-based misogyny affects all women, but it disproportionately impacts Black women.
The acceptance of Richardson comes with an allowance for what are considered unusual choices, one not afforded to everyone. Musician Aja Graydon summed up many Black women’s sentiments perfectly: “A gentle reminder to love and cheer for Black girls with orange hair, long nails, tats and lashes even when they aren’t the fastest woman in the country.”
This is what we all need to do. Remember there are young women who aren’t in Vogue, The New York Times or People Magazine but still sport long orange hair, voluminous lashes, tattoos and colorful long nails—and they need us rooting for them to win the way we are for Sha’Carri Richardson.