People are superficial. Time and time again studies have proved that most people (whether consciously or unconsciously) make judgments about other people based on physical appearance. How this manifests in the workplace is that unattractive people often get the short end of the stick. Economist Daniel Hamermesh reveals in his book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful that, “…the attractive are more likely to be employed [and] receive more substantial pay…” This research has been out for a while, but I hadn’t given much thought to the implications of the findings in my personal life until I had to re-enter the job search market.
Job Searching With Natural Hair
I typically wear my hair in dreadlocks as a matter of convenience and have done so for the past three years. So when I started meeting with recruiters and interviewing for a new job, the thought of changing my hair for the sole purpose of landing a job didn’t even occur to me. Curiously, even though I felt that I was a great candidate, I wasn’t getting any call-backs. Frustrated and annoyed with my lack of progress, I called my sister to vent about my job search woes. Her advice: wear a wig. Really? So my stellar resume, exceptional work experience and superstar personality meant nothing? I refused. I was adamant – I would rise against the tide of corporate conformity!
Fast forward to a few weeks later, still no call-backs. I started thinking about a recent experience that I’d had in my local grocery store when a young white girl excitedly pointed at me, turned to her father and said, “Daddy, daddy look! That girl has funny hair!” Maybe my sister was right after-all. So I reluctantly pulled on a wig for my next interviews, and rather coincidentally, I started getting call-backs. Now, this obviously could just mean that I got better at interviewing. But on the other hand, maybe there was something more vile underpinning this coincidence…
Black Hair and Discrimination
In an episode of the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast, Lori L.Tharp discusses how negative perceptions about natural Black hair in Western societies stems from the racist slavery era. During slavery time, it was often assumed that a Black person who had lighter skin and less kinky hair texture had some white blood mixed in them. These slaves would often be treated better than their darker-skinned and kinkier-haired counterparts by the slave masters, as they were thought to be smarter and more teachable because of the white blood running through their veins. Kinky hair textures weren’t even referred to as hair – rather as wool, effectively dehumanizing Black people. Thankfully, things today are certainly not to that degree of racism, however, vestiges of slavery remain within our modern culture. The story we generally see in the media is that natural Black hair is not worth seeing – it’s something that ought to be covered up. It’s unattractive. When it comes to the workplace, some companies even go so far as to disallow natural hairstyles for Black women under the company dress code. Podcast host Cristen Conger sums this up quite precisely as “…racism under the guise of professionalism.”
Dreadlocks, especially, come with a host of negative stereotypes. We all remember Giuliana Rancic’s unfortunate comment about Zendaya Coleman’s locs smelling like weed and patchouli. While Giuliana might have meant this as a joke (albeit in poor taste), I have no doubt that there are some people who genuinely believe that all dread-heads are druggies.
So, if dreadlocks are a stigmatized hairstyle, and research has shown that it only takes a tenth of a second to form a first impression of a stranger, plus attractiveness is one of leading traits assessed the quickest by people and is known to impact success in the workplace, then does the intersection of all these pieces of information mean that I had been knocked out of contention for getting the job before I’d even opened my mouth in the interview? I wonder.
After landing a job I continued to wear a wig to work so as to not ruffle any feathers or distract people from the quality of my work. I’ve worn wigs in the past but never for a full eight hours per day, five days a week. I hated it. Taking off my wig when I got home was the best part of my day – like exhaling after holding your breath for a long time. I lasted for a few months doing this but then couldn’t do it any longer. I’m back to wearing my locs full-time and accept the risk that some ignorant people may not look favorably on my hair styling choice, but at least I’m comfortable and no longer feel like an impostor.