How My Afro Hurt My Job Hunt, Because Workplace Discrimination Absolutely Still Exists
When I decided to chop off my relaxed hair, I was living in Brooklyn. NYC is a mecca of fashion statements influenced by the cultures that exist in all five boroughs. As soon as I started seeing all the afros coming out of their braids and weaves, I knew I wanted in. In New England, I hadn't considered another option other than having relaxed hair; it was just something bestowed upon me to disappear into an idea of beauty that didn't grow naturally out of my head. To be honest, though, having straight hair never really seemed to fit my outgoing, quirky personality, so I eventually realized it was time to go back to my natural curls.
As with any somewhat permanent decision I make, I had to go through my three favorite emotions: immediate self-doubt, seeking approval from my friends, and then pretending I actually don't want to do it at all. That took about three years and by the time I made the appointment to chop off all my relaxed hair, I was more than ready. It was like when you decide to get a tattoo and suddenly you can't stand for the skin where it will be to be bare anymore.
By the time I made an appointment to ditch my dead, straight locks, I was living in Portland, Oregon, working at a stuffy consulting firm. Even though I was the only black girl at the firm, it wasn't a strange concept to me. I was in the throes of anticipation for my "Big Chop Weekend" before I realized I would return to work on Monday almost bald. On Monday, no one looked me directly in the eye or mentioned my hair. I tried not to be insecure and wonder if I wasn't pulling my new 'do off before understanding my hair had nothing to do with what I was hired for. After a few weeks of awkward glances and meetings where no one actually looked at me, I was told there was no more work for me and let go.
During my job hunt when I moved back to New York a few years later, I realized that my afro could hold me back in interviews. I was encouraged by people close to me to wear a wig or a classy braid in interviews. Since I was going in for coporate gigs at the time, I was definitely going to be judged on my appearance. For me, dissecting hidden messages or speculating that someone is discriminating me based on my hair wasn't going to help me. I was over trying to fit in with anyone who wasn't going to accept my natural beauty — that includes folks of my own color who frowned at my big hair.
In general, the corporate masses seem to encourage appearances that are natural. Often someone with highlights, too much makeup, and fake nails on a job interview would be taken less seriously than someone who walked in with a "fresh face." So, to me, it's baffling that isn't the case with people of color wearing their hair natural. This may sound like a paranoid, overly dramatic whine to some, but the reality is that I am not the first nor will I be the last to feel discriminated in corporate America because of my afro.
In 2012, Rhonda Lee was fired for responding to rude comments about her natural hair, where someone even went as far to suggest her short cut was due to cancer and advise her to grow more hair. Just this past summer, a woman claimed she was fired for refusing to tame her afro in Brooklyn and filed a $900,000 lawsuit against the Barclay Center.
I'm not willing to let my hair health be ruled by a job. In fact, at my previous contract I often wore head wraps and hats a couple times a week during the winter months to keep my moisture locked. I was fortunate enough to work for a diverse consulting firm this time and was able to rock a blow-out, a twist-out, or big elaborate hair wrap whenever I felt like it.
My hair is a large part of who I am: It cannot always be tamed and it cannot always be pulled back. For me, it's very easy to throw two middle-fingers up at anyone asking me to change my hairstyle, which is often deemed "unconventional" because I have made a decision to be exactly who I am.
Image: Kristin Collins Jackson