By Kathleen Smith
A sly smile appears across Claudijah Lever’s face as she shifts forward in her chair, as if she’s about to tell a secret. She radiates confidence as she talks about her crowning glory: her African American natural hair.
Until the early 1900s, and the invention and patent of the first hot comb for straightening by Annie Turnbo, African American women could not straighten their curly locks. Today, women wear their hair relaxed or straightened while others prefer a more Afrocentric look, such as braids, cornrows, dreadlocks or afros. Lupita Nyong’o recently accepted the best supporting actress Oscar while wearing her hair in a short, natural fro accessorized with a headband. Vogue Daily then crowned her best dressed from head to toe. Each hairstyle a black woman wears represents the image she wants to portray, but can that style ultimately cost her a job in the workforce?
It could, says the President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, Gwendolyn Grant. Companies have an established culture, and if your style doesn’t fit with that culture, then a company may not want to hire you. Young applicants and graduates are encouraged to find out what is acceptable in their potential industry and to present themselves in that way. And when in doubt, go toward conservative.
Company cultures vary widely. What is acceptable to a company like Hallmark may not be acceptable to Commerce Bank. Grant suggests basic hairstyles for all African American women, such as straightened hair, weaves, extensions or even wearing a wig. Styles like cornrows will take the focus off you, she says. Despite antidiscrimination laws, interviewers have their own biases.
“While the country and society may be progressing in areas of race and sexual preferences, the corporate sector is not,” Grant said. “The important thing is that a young person of color must assimilate into the culture of that company.”
Lever agrees. The University of Kansas junior said while growing up in a black and Hispanic neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee, she learned the importance of hair from an early age. She reminisces about how she got her first kiddie perm at age 8 so she would fit in more with the Latino girls in her class. Now she wears her hair natural, but says she will straighten it or wear it up for job interviews because she feels it will affect her chance of getting a job as a nurse after graduation.
“A lot of companies do not embrace Afrocentric styles,” Lever said. “I always get a lot of people of other races asking me about my hair. I don’t want it to be a factor of whether I get a job or not.”
Black men are not off the hook with their hair either, says Nichole Hines, the owner of Niki’s Niche salon in Leawood, Kan. The college-educated son of one of Hines’ clients could not get a job because he wore dreadlocks. He finally cut off his dreads and Sprint immediately hired him. He works in the IT industry and was not in front of the public, but still couldn’t get hired until he cut off his dreads. People think dreads are dirty because you have to go months without washing your hair to get it to lock together.
“Dreads are virtually an employment blocker,” Hines said. “One can try pulling them back and creating a conservative look for interviews, but this hairstyle choice is really not accepted by most businesses.”
Hines says that 90 percent of her clients are professional, white collar, African American women who mostly wear their hair naturally but get it straightened. Her clients abandon the chemicals for a plethora of reasons, mostly safety and health. She believes natural textured styles can be acceptable in the workforce but they must be tame. Her clients prefer twist outs and braid outs that are formed when the hair is wet and then dried. This allows the hair to form waves and ringlet curls. If a black woman just washes her hair and lets it dry naturally, she’ll wind up with a fro and that’s a no-no in conservative industries.
“I think potential employees need to research every company they are interviewing with to learn the acceptable culture. If it is a company with few minorities, this is not the time to make a statement with a fro,” Hines said. “It’s not selling out, it is survival.”
Edited and photographed by Hannah Swank
Model: Clarisa Warfield