As I scrolled through my Facebook feed a few weeks ago, I came across a status update that was upsetting, though sadly not surprising: “That awkward moment when your decision to wear your hair natural comes up in an interview… and not in a complimentary way…”
My friend Sonia had interviewed for a position as a Social Media Specialist for a marketing startup in New York City. The interview took place in the common area of WeWork, a coworking office space where the startup had put down temporary roots. As distracting commotion took place around them, she and the rather cold interviewer had the following exchange.
Interviewer: “Is that how your hair is in your LinkedIn picture?”
Interviewer: “Not straight?”
Interviewer: “Oh… Interesting…”
He then made qualifying statements, such as, “So you say you’re good at SEO,” and “You claim to be a good writer.” I didn’t ask Sonia if she still hopes to get the position, but my guess is no. According to an HR specialist who wishes to remain anonymous, “the freedom for businesses to judge candidates on their appearance is supposed to be used in terms of disqualifying people for appearing unkempt, dirty, unwashed etc., but some shitty people use it as a way to get around hiring people of color.” Ironically, the marketing startup plans to represent law firms. Clearly this interviewer hasn’t been trained to avoid comments that could very easily, and rightfully, result in legal action.
While Sonia doesn’t plan to sue, it’s well known to many in the PoC community that not only will businesses often discriminate against people of color, but they will also ascribe beauty standards that demand that employees follow Western ideals of what it means to be “well kempt” and professional. Sonia never hid the fact that she has curly hair. In fact, she displayed her hair quite clearly on the aforementioned LinkedIn profile. The interviewer made the “mistake” of admitting that his company screens its employees based on appearance, and an appearance that has everything to do with race. Could Sonia make the choice to go straight? Sure. But it would be costly, time consuming, and would ultimately damage her hair.
When Viola Davis’s character took off her wig at the end of the first episode of How to Get Away with Murder, it was one of the most magical moments I’d ever seen on television. That moment was followed a year later by her Emmy win, which she accepted while wearing her hair in a beautiful, natural afro.
Not that women who do wear weaves, extensions, or wigs should be castigated for their choices. A few years ago, a black feminist friend of mine made the bold choice to confidently re-embrace weaves and extensions, despite any backlash she would receive from our feminist / academia circle. She said she decided to make the change because she realized no one should be able to decide her hair choices for her. The same was true for Viola at the Emmys, and the same should be true for Sonia when she interviews for a job.
Sonia’s curly hair does not need to be tamed, and ironically, many women with straight hair would love to have that volume. Young Amandla Stenberg, an emerging mouthpiece for black feminism, recently said, “Someone once told me that it’s a small revolution in itself just to be a person of color and be a woman and be yourself.” Sonia participated in a small revolution that day, just by staying true to who she is.