The night before an interview can be a grueling experience. You may spend countless hours laying out your freshly ironed clothes and practicing your elevator pitch in the mirror while researching and studying your potential new employer. For many women of color, there's an added layer that we’re unfortunately forced to think about: How am I going to wear my hair? Should I straighten my curls? Should I take out my braids or my twists? Should I pull back my hair so it won't look too "unkempt"?
The unbelievable reality is that society has maintained a disheartening history of attaching natural hairstyles with unprofessionalism. It's even trickled down into education systems and government-enforced laws. In 2016, the federal court ruled it legal to discriminate against employees with dreadlocks. In the same year, young girls got expelled from school for wearing afros and black women were getting fired from their jobs simply because of their natural hair, not because of their ability to do their jobs.
More recently, we’ve seen things slightly change for the better. July 2019 marked an unprecedented moment where California became the first state to implement the Crown (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act which bans discrimination based on natural hairstyles. Although the moment was a signal of much-needed and long-awaited progress, the outright prejudice black women face because of the way we decide to wear our hair is completely inexcusable and has been swept under the rug for far too long.
As the push for inclusivity in the workplace continues, the question is, what must it take for us to be accepted for our abilities instead of our cultural differences and the way we wear our hair?
It's not OK. Instead of focusing on securing the job, we're forced to focus on how we'll be perceived by our non-natural-haired counterparts. Sure, society has come a long way, but we're far from where we need to be when it comes to accepting and embracing cultural differences. The beauty of understanding is placing yourself in someone else's shoes. Read on for the raw and honest thoughts that go through the minds of women of color when we're preparing for job interviews. While reading these stories, it's vital to acknowledge that everyone shares their own unique experiences. Not all women with natural hair share these feelings when interviewing but there are an astounding number who do.
Take a look at our hair stories below.
Profession: medical device sales
"Embracing my natural hair at work has been a total mind shift. I was the girl who straightened my hair for any interview or any big work event. Who cared if that meant not working out for the next five days? I thought when your hair is straight, it’s more relatable; it's easier for other people to understand."
"Last April, I flew to Paris for work, straightened my hair, and truly had a moment: Why am I doing this? If I expect my co-workers to embrace and understand my natural hair, I had to do the same. That meant putting down the flat irons and learning to love my natural hair. I’ve decided that being authentically me is relatable and easy for people to understand."
Profession: experiential marketing and operations manager at Discovery Inc.
"For me, my hair has always been an insecurity in the workplace. I'm usually the only woman of color on my team. When interviewing, I always try to either have my hair straightened or pulled back into a neat bun because I don't want an interviewer to be turned off by my natural hair. I'm currently on the hunt for a new job, and I always know my outfit will be on point, and so will my makeup, but when it comes to my hair, it's a toss-up. I'm afraid an employer will think I'm 'too black' or unpolished or whatever people who cannot relate may think. I've been wanting to get braids, but I'm afraid to go into an interview as a black woman with braids."
"It's a sad reality for many women of color. Not only am I a woman, but I am a woman of color, and I feel that any little thing, like my natural hair, could cause my skills to be overlooked. Don't get me wrong; I love my hair. I embrace who I am, and I love that I can be so versatile with styles. I just wish my hair wasn't treated as a spectacle and that the standard of beauty wasn't simply stuck in one hairstyle. I've been wearing my natural hair out, and not pulled back, more often to interviews lately, and I feel good, empowered even. I'm just not sure if non-people-of-color interviewers feel the same."
Profession: public relations senior account executive
"When it comes to professional environments, my curls are always in question. Since I'm almost always wearing no-heat, natural styles, I often have to ask myself, Should I straighten my hair for this interview? Do these braids that took entirely too long to put in need to be taken out? fearing that my fro may be a bit much for someone to handle in a first impression. For me, and many black women, rocking my natural tresses is a practice of acceptance, a celebration. Feeling like I have to compromise that self-acceptance for the sake of an employer's comfort just doesn't quite sit right and plays a huge role in my interview-hair decision."
"I decide to see interviews as opportunities to rock a chic bun or experiment with new protective styles versus wearing my hair out or applying heat. Once the bag is secured, however, I make sure to find ways to let my personal style, which includes my curls, shine even in the most corporate of cultures. Despite the typical 'work-appropriate' hair and beauty standards we see accepted in professional environments, I think it's ultimately very important to bring your best, truest self to your work. That includes your experiences, your personality, your style, your perspective, and your hair the way it grows from your scalp."
Profession: third-year law student, soon-to-be corporate attorney
"The first time I wore my hair natural in any sort of professional environment, I was 24 years old. The inability to consistently find someone who looks like me sitting across the table at any corporate law firm is a tragedy and reality that I face on a daily basis. While this never deterred me from wanting to push forward, it did make me hyper-aware of how I needed to present myself in these settings. So when interview season usually came around, my edges were as tight as my résumé book because I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable. A slave to the pre-interview blowout, I'd anxiously scour the beauty pages of whichever city I was in, praying I'd find a black stylist who could make me look 'professional' (read: presentable). I smiled and networked; the attorneys feeling 'safe' while I felt uncomfortable. Uncertainty about my hair was a familiar feeling, one I felt most prevalently from kindergarten through 12th grade. And prior to attending Howard University as an undergraduate, I hadn’t even fathomed the idea of 'letting my curls down' for any sort of social function, let alone a job."
"But slowly, I transitioned. And eventually, I embraced it. The summer of my penultimate year at Berkeley Law, I was given the opportunity to interview with a law firm in New York City. I grappled with whether or not I should straighten my hair to appease the general work environment that accompanies corporate settings. The hardest thing about going natural in the workplace is the vulnerability. The nakedness you feel when someone slowly glances at you, taking in your hair fully. But then I had a thought: After 19 years of school, how is my hairstyle a reflection of my competence and measure of success? That’s when I realized it’s not, and I don’t want to work with anyone who believes otherwise. Walking through the law firm, curls bouncing, frizz flying, I was myself, confident and at ease. No, nobody asked if they could touch them, but I was definitely feeling the love from the associates. Who knew? They loved my curls more than me."
Profession: Beauty publicist
"I work as a publicist in the beauty industry, which puts a specific type of pressure to look a certain way, especially when going on job interviews. Before going on an interview, I usually research the company's current employees to get a better sense of what the company culture is like and if I can see myself resonating there. This usually dictates how I'll wear my hair during the interview. My current job has an extremely corporate environment, and I noticed that I would be the only woman of color on my team. I decided to wear my hair back in a low puff ponytail for the job interview. I got the job, but to this day, wearing my hair out at work makes me feel extremely vulnerable yet empowered at the same time, if that makes sense. My co-workers have told me that I'm like two different people in and out of work, solely because of how I wear my hair. It's sad because I'd love to embrace that part of myself at my job, but I don't feel comfortable. PR is a high-stress job as it is, so the less pressure I can place on myself the better."
The picture above was taken the year I finally decided I felt beautiful wearing the curls I was born with. For a while, I felt ashamed that it took me nearly 24 years to wear my natural hair in the workplace. Maybe it's because I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is one of the whitest cities in America. Everywhere I turned I saw the complete opposite of my kinky, curly, thick hair. I broke the ice when I decided to wear natural styles for a full week straight at my office. I wore a sleek, highlighted bob (which was extensions) to my interview, and my co-workers had never seen my natural hair before. I wore several styles and had never received that many compliments in the workplace in my life. That's when I realize how incredibly fulfilling it is when you wholeheartedly embrace your uniqueness. My confidence in my natural hair catapulted overnight.
A few months later, I wore these braids to my Byrdie interview with my lovely boss, Lindsey. I will say, working in beauty on the edit side encourages individuality. We read and write about hair all the time, and I'm grateful to work in an industry that is mostly positive when it comes to hair diversity. Editorial isn't all the way there, but progress looks good. Interviewing with these braids, I felt like myself, which is ever-changing and ever-evolving. Since this style, my co-workers have seen and embraced me in myriad styles, consistently flooding me with compliments without unwarranted questioning. This is because I work with incredible women who don't have one bone of judgment in their body. I know my story is rare, but it does give me an inkling of hope that I will confidently walk into the doors of any future place of business wearing afros, braids, and twists damn proud.