working girl: tina opie, management professor

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 – As told to Tamara Pridgett

A professor of Management at Babson College and founder of the site Hair as Identity, Tina Opie is taking an academic approach to understanding the “the social implications and reactions to natural hair, from the challenges of wearing natural hair in the workplace to struggles with self-confidence as it relates to hair.” She shares with us how her site came about and some of the insights she’s learned through her research.

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Name: Tina Opie

Age: 43

Location: Boston, Massachusetts

Profession: Professor of Management at Babson College

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How did you get started?

When I was younger I wanted to be a news anchor woman but my father said, they don’t make any money. You need to major in business. So, I got my undergraduate from James Madison University in Business Management. I then got my MBA from the Darden School of Business, became a consultant and in between undergraduate and graduate [school] I was a banker at NationsBank which is now Bank of America.

There was definitely something that I felt [was] missing. I wasn’t quite happy with focusing on stock prices and people’s returns. I really wanted to do something that I felt was giving back at a deeper level. So, I attended a conference from an organization called the PhD Project… an organization that tries to diversify the business room faculty… then I went off to get my MBA. I had a professor there who said he saw something different; so, he invited me to take a doctoral seminar and that’s when I really knew I wanted to teach and do research. I went to NYU Stern School of Business… graduated in 2010 and I’ve been at Babson as a Professor ever since.

How did you get started with hair?

My blog and my website started when I moved to Boston from New York. I went into the CVS; then I went to Walgreens trying to find hair products but I couldn’t find anything that would work on my hair. I went online because I was trying to find other people in the Boston community who could help me… figure out where I could get my hair done because I had dreadlocks for ten years. I started blogging because I felt so isolated here in Boston, honestly, and then people started reading the blog and I began to realize that my hair story started a long time ago—when I was a little girl, sticking my head out the window and being mad because my hair didn’t blow in the wind like I saw on Charlie’s Angels. Then I realized that hair was very much connected to my research on identity, and my husband actually suggested that I start to combine and think about how my personal story connected to my research, and that’s how Hair as Identity was born.

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What are some key takeaways you would like to share about your research on hair:

One of the key takeaways from [interviews I conducted at Circle of Sister’s] is that many, many women, whether they had natural hair or they were chemically processing their hair had a desire to wear natural hair. This was clear, but what was really interesting to me is that many of them said, “Well, they won’t allow me to wear my hair natural. They won’t accept it.” I started to [say] “Who do you mean by they?” They were talking about the power structure, specifically they were referring to white individuals.

And so, as a researcher, [I recognized] that’s an empirical question. We have this lay theory which says: the typical woman was coming up to me saying “I would love to wear my hear this way but they won’t allow it.” Well, has that been investigated? Is that true?

The first takeaway is that many black women wanted to wear their hair natural. The second takeaway is they felt that there was some external barrier to them doing that. So, I actually conducted some experimental studies and what I found was they’re correct. It’s not surprising [that with] Eurocentric vs. Afrocentric styles, Afrocentric styles are rated as less professional. What was surprising to me when I looked at the data was that it wasn’t they. It was us. Meaning, black people were most negative towards Afrocentric styles.  So, even though Afrocentric styles were rated as less professional, it was the black people who rated them as the most unprofessional.

What are some of the ups and downs you face on the job?

Some of the ups are when I go into the classroom and the students really grasp what I’m discussing. They really understand the material. They come up to me and say, this has impacted how they’re going to manage their team. The downs are when you encounter students who may be less receptive to material, specifically material that may be in any way related to diversity. …You find that if you’re from an underrepresented group, people can sometimes challenge you and your very right to be there. That’s a down, but the good thing is that there’s a book called Presumed Incompetence, which talks about that. [It] gives a narrative to it and with organizations like the PhD Project and the Management Faculty of Color Association, you start to have a community, and you realize that you’re not the only one.

Another down is just getting published. [Academic publishing] is a really difficult environment. It has a 5% acceptance rate and it could take two to three years to get published. So you just feel like a loser. Our field is very much about rejection.

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Your greatest achievement so far?

I would say being a committed wife and mother and having my priorities straight in terms of what really is the pay off in this life. I’m a Christian woman. I raise my children and my husband and I have a strong marriage, and that is not easy. It’s a dual-career family…

After that I would also say getting my PhD as a Mother. I took my daughter to class with me. She was born in August, classes started at the end of August [and] she was in my classroom. I didn’t ask for permission. I just took her to school with me because I was afraid if I asked for permission, they would say no and I wasn’t prepared to deal with that.

The research that I’m doing I really do think can change the world. It can change attitudes. I’ve had conversations with my son who is about to turn 12 and he is beginning to understand natural hair and he will compliment my daughter on her hair. I cut my locks off because my daughter honestly thought that locks—when they get really long, they’re straight—she thought I had Barbie doll hair and she wanted her [hair] like mine. Well, I cut my hair off and I told her, I’m doing this so my hair looks like yours. And she was like, really?! And she tells people, my mother cut her hair so it would look like mine. If we could do that, you know, dozens, and thousands, and hundreds of thousands and even millions of times over with little black girls, I think we could have more confident young women. People will say hair is just a small thing but hair is a window to many identities—to gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation. It’s a blend into so many different identity groups that I think if you can understand this, [you] can help basically make the world more equitable.

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What are your top go-to hair tips:

  • Moisturize. Oil does not moisturize your hair. You have to put water or something in your hair to moisturize it and then use a sealant.
  • Don’t try to force your hair to do something that it may not want to do on any particular day. Learn how to go with what your hair is saying that particular day.
  • Simplify. Hone in on what works for your hair.
  • Accept. What I mean by that is the reason why I think people have so many hair care products is because they’re trying to find some magic potion to get their hair a particular way. I see this a lot on the natural hair websites where people are trying to get their hair to look wavy or to coil up or whatever and its sort of like we have idolized a particular texture of hair even in the natural community.
  • Look at yourself in the mirror when your hair is freshly washed, nothing in it, and learn to love what you see. I know the top go-to tips is often about styling and grooming but my work is really about identity and self-acceptance. So if you put all those products aside, you’re looking in the mirror. Your hair is freshly washed. Do you like what you see? And if you don’t, go through the process of asking yourself why. Why does your hair have to have a wave to it? Why does it have to have a coil or a curl to it?
  • Accept other people and the way their hair is.

Fun fact: I’m a music-crazed person. I love everything from Bonnie Raitt to Prince to Gregory Porter to Teena Marie, and I sing it. I could totally see myself being in a band.

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