At a recent interview, I sat in the waiting area for the hiring manager to come and greet me and did my usual scan of employees while I waited. The receptionist was black (and wearing micro braids), and a man, who looked to be on the custodial staff, was speaking Spanish to another younger woman, who appeared to be helping him clean the kitchen area.
Other than these three, everyone else walking by was a white woman. I knew from my LinkedIn research that the hiring manager was a thin brunette who looked to be a few years older than me. The other women walking around looked like different-hair-color versions of her—tall, thin, with long, straight hair. As I waited, I distinctly remember thinking, “Maybe I should have twisted my hair down.”
I didn’t have this thought because I was worried that they wouldn’t hire me because of my hair; my thought was that my hair might be more of a focus than I would like. As I got a better look at the other people they deemed a “good fit” for the company, brown skin and textured hair was not a common thread. I didn’t want to blend in with the white skin and straight hair of the current work environment, but I didn’t want my brown skin and curly hair to be the focus of my interview, either.
As the hiring manager walked toward me, I stood up. Before greeting me with her name or an introduction, she put her hand out to shake mine and said, “Awesome hair.”
What seemed like a harmless compliment shifted how I thought to approach the rest of my interview. There is an acute awareness that comes from being the sole minority in any environment. Even if we are comfortable there, we have to wonder if interactions would go differently if we were different. Would “awesome hair” be the thing that got me in the door, or the distracting quality that kept me back?
Many recruiters advise that you avoid distracting patterns and heavy fragrances when getting dressed for an interview. The thought behind this common piece of advice is that you don't want these things outshining why you are there—which is to discuss your qualifications, skills and fit for a position. But in the sentiment of letting your skills speak loudest, what happens when your clothes and perfume aren’t the distraction?
BlackGirlLongHair published a post written by a New York City recruiter who specifically addressed the concern that many naturals have about how to wear their hair for interviews. She emphasized the importance of keeping all styles neat and tailored (which could be very subjective) and doing your research on the company culture before deciding how to wear your coils for the big day.
In an article for Forbes, executive recruiter and author Stacy Gordon recognized that her decision to wear her hair straightened has led her to naively assume that natural hair would not prevent a qualified candidate from receiving a position. Black hair is never “just hair” in its connection to public opinion and just how much choosing to buck conformity could influence that opinion.
My interview went pretty standard after the introduction. After about 50 minutes of normal interview chatter, infused with appropriate lighthearted comments about the craziness of working in fashion and living in New York City, she asked the question I had really been waiting for from the time she greeted me: She reiterated that she thought my hair was so cool and then asked, “How do you get it like that?”
The weight of this question from a potential employer may be lost on some. She didn’t ask about my dress or where I had purchased my handbag—this question was directly linked to my identity and how I had achieved a look that she decided was interesting. It confirmed that straight hair was expected, and that even with the positive comments, textured hair was not. She had opened and closed the interview with a comment regarding my hair; it didn’t seem out of the question to wonder if this would be a factor in her decision about my place in the company.
While my hair is a major part of my identity, I don’t want any aspect of my physical appearance to dictate my career moves.
As black women, we fully understand that we often need to juggle our tone, perceived attitude and resting face before we even get through the first bullet point on our résumé. How we choose to wear our hair only adds to the nonverbal expression of who we are—whether we want it to or not.
I will not straighten my hair in order to fit into an expected standard; and I recognize that there is a lot of privilege in this decision. I can only imagine how it is for naturals in more conservative industries, where there is little room for self-expression. I work in a creative and, oftentimes, open-minded industry, and I am still asked to explain how I got my hair to grow out of my head.
I am very proud of my hair and have accepted that it makes a statement about my pride and confidence in being black and having features natural to blackness; but it does cross my mind that this statement could be speaking louder than my own voice in some circumstances.
Shayna Watson is a freelance style and beauty writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in a shoe-box apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.—which is fitting, since she really loves shoes. You can check out her personal style musings on A Nu Creature and follow her on Instagram.