What the Perception of ‘Professional’ Hair Means for Black Job Seekers

The results of a Google search of hairstyles has turned the spotlight on the discrimination people of color may face while interviewing.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 13, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

It’s job-hunting season for the nation’s college seniors, but along with networking and shining their dress shoes, both men and women of color looking for employment have an added factor to consider: racial bias in hiring. They may have to whiten their résumés because job applicants with more “ethnic”-sounding names are statistically less likely to get an interview than a white person. If they land an interview, people of color may feel the pressure to straighten their hair too.

The perception that straight hair equals professionalism became a hot topic last week, thanks to a viral tweet depicting an unsettling Google search result. Twitter user Bonnie Kamona searched “unprofessional hairstyles for work” and “professional hairstyles for work.”

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The search results for “unprofessional” hair show almost entirely black women with natural hairstyles, while the “professional” results revealed all white, straight-haired, blond women. Side by side, here’s what Kamona found:

This bias makes choosing a hairstyle a big part of the job search for black women who are about to graduate from college.

“When we’re preparing for job interviews and career fairs, some professors and career-planning advisers will strongly suggest that girls who normally wear their hair natural opt for straighter hair to appeal to the most conservative of employers,” Ayana Lindsey, a senior at Spelman College in Atlanta, told TakePart. Lindsey, who just landed her dream job at Goldman Sachs, said she made appearing professional during interviews a priority.

Lindsey, who relaxes her hair, said her peers are usually advised to “test the waters” a few weeks into their job to see whether natural hair would be acceptable. Tiaira Muhammad, a University of Southern California sophomore and an aspiring TV news journalist, agreed, admitting she’d rather sacrifice her natural hair for a job than get no job at all.

Ayana Lindsey (left); Tiaira Muhammad. (Photos: Alex Janin)

“When I apply for internships when I have twists, I would worry how the interviewers would see me. I definitely wouldn’t consider wearing my natural hair,” Muhammad told TakePart. “It’s really disheartening. I can count the number of black women journalists with natural hair on one hand.”

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USC senior Jordyn Holman hopes to be one of those black women journalists. During her most recent job interview, Holman faced her fear of judgment and wore her hair in braids, despite her hairstylist’s warnings that they could come off as “militant” or “not professional.” She got the job.

“Hair is a personal choice, not a reflection on skills or personality,” Holman told TakePart. “Hopefully when I get enough clout and people start to know me and my skills, I will start wearing my hair in an Afro.”

Holman noted that she changes her hair often and is sometimes met with confused looks and comments from peers when she does. Last year, while studying abroad in London, she came into class one day with braids and the next with an Afro.

“My mom was in town, so she did it for me, and I loved it and felt so confident. And my professor was like, ‘Who are you?’ ” said Holman. “It was the ninth week of school.”

In the past five years, more black women have begun wearing their naturally textured hair instead of using chemical hair relaxers or hot straightening tools. The change is evident on-screen and on fashion runways, with black women such as Victoria’s Secret model Maria Borges in the spotlight and actors Viola Davis, Amandla Stenberg, and Lupita Nyong’o setting a new standard by rocking their natural hair.

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Despite such high-profile examples, black people continue to face discrimination on the job because of their hair texture and style. Last week, a black woman in Toronto alleged she was escorted out of her job as a sales assistant at fashion retailer Zara after a store manager deemed her natural, braided hair unprofessional. Then there’s Rhonda Lee, a Shreveport, Louisiana, meteorologist who was allegedly fired in 2012 for defending her natural hair on social media.

It’s not just a women’s issue. Men of color have long experienced discrimination in the workplace because of the length and texture of their hair. Jody Armour, a criminal law professor at USC, told TakePart he was harassed by guards at a J.W. Marriott in Downtown Los Angeles after being mistaken for a homeless man because of his Afro—and that wasn’t an isolated incident. Following about 10 months of missed trips to the barbershop while on sabbatical, Armour said he realized people were treating him differently from when his hair was short and he “looked more like Obama.”

“I once went downtown to give a lecture to some attorneys about commercial transactions, and one of the partners called back to the law school and said my appearance was ‘impertinent and unprofessional,’ ” said Armour. “That’s when I really said, ‘Grow, baby, grow’—when I realized it was having that kind of impact. My simple celebration of the African American soul.”

For Armour, growing his hair out and embracing his “exuberant nappiness,” as he puts it, was a backlash against the societal pressures urging him to keep it “professional.” But he recognizes that as a tenured professor, he has a little more wiggle room than people just entering the job market.

“It is a real moral dilemma.... I can understand how someone, in order to pay off some debt in getting their undergraduate education, is going to feel a strong motivation to pay down those debts by taking a good-paying job,” he said.

Many of those good-paying jobs, Armour acknowledged, are at firms that require adhering to a narrow appearance code.

Students and experts agree that this is something white people just don’t think about. Marie McCoy-Thompson, a USC senior looking for full-time work and who is white, says her background gives her the freedom to not have to worry about factors like the texture of her hair when she walks into an interview.

Jordyn Holman (left); Marie McCoy-Thompson. (Photos: Alex Janin)

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“It’s a privilege that I live with that it’s not at all something I have to think about,” she said. “It’s definitely an important conversation for people of any race to be having, because especially if you’re not a black person but hiring people of all races, you need to be aware of the kind of experiences people are coming from.”

Kamona’s tweet with the side-by-side images received a backlash on social media, including the criticism that Google search results are skewed based on the profile of the searcher. McCoy-Thompson said she plugged “professional hairstyles for work” and “unprofessional hairstyles for work” into her iPhone’s search bar to see if that was true.

While the “unprofessional hairstyles for work” result returned mostly pictures of black women with natural hairstyles, McCoy-Thompson agreed that this could be a result of the tweet going viral several days before. Many of the photos linked back to the tweet or the conversation surrounding it. The “professional hairstyles for work” image results showed almost all white women with straight hair. In the fifth row, there was one woman of color.

“There’s one of Beyoncé but her hair is straightened, so out of every photo of Beyoncé that exists, with all the hairstyles that she has, this is the one that represents professionalism. That is the problem,” McCoy-Thompson said.

Even people of color with successful careers continue to face this kind of stereotyping.

Professor Jody Armour. (Photo: Courtesy Jody Armour)

“Now as a tenured professor with three sons in college, I’m still getting characterized as a criminal,” Armour said about his students pointing out his Afro. “Overall, for these systematic norms, the burden falls disproportionately on women. Men catch a lot of heat too, but women hear the brunt of them.”

Some women have succeeded in filing lawsuits, such as a black former Hooters server who was awarded $250,000 after her boss allegedly told her she wasn’t allowed to dye her hair blond because “it didn’t look natural.” However, for those entering the job market, it can be difficult to make discrimination claims against companies that don’t hire black applicants, because there isn’t always enough evidence to support the accusations. Holman said the best way to address the problems will be to start a conversation.

“Any time a hashtag starts like #journalismsowhite or #oscarssowhite, the instinct is always ‘We need more diversity!’, and that’s wonderful,” she said. “But what comes with that is understanding the barriers of why you didn’t have diversity before.”