“How Shall I Wear My Hair?” – Students Navigating Professional Identity Politics

Jade PerryJade Perry, Coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Student Success at DePaul University
Twitter: @SAJadePerry1
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/pub/jade-perry/21/667/b25/
Website: jadetperry.com 

During graduate school, I worked as the diversity program assistant in the primary career services department for a university. I provided programming and advising concerning the ways that our identities influence our career development process. I was asked a myriad of questions on topics that ranged from international visas and sponsorships, to gender in the workplace, to assessing a company’s commitment to inclusivity. But I could always tell that some of my students weren’t always paying attention to the resume/cover letter advice I was giving. They were looking at something else….my hair.

In my professional life, I have chosen to wear my hair naturally. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, this simply means that I wear my hair in the tightly coiled, curly form in which it grows. I work a myriad of styles: voluminous, curly afros, braids, wash-and-go, silky straight, and pompadours. Though the options are endless, these styles include anything that allows me to least amount of manipulation to the way my hair naturally grows.

Now that we’ve gotten definitions cleared, you might be wondering why I’m talking about hair in this particular form. It is because I cannot count the times that my students, particularly women of color, have asked in hushed tones, “So….I’m meeting a recruiter/employer tomorrow and I’m hoping to get a job. I wear my hair naturally. So, what do you do—what should I do—about my hair?”

It is one of my favorite questions, but it is always a loaded one. The trained ear will notice that these students are not just asking for fashion advice. They are trying to figure out how to navigate identity politics. They are looking for understanding on how they might “assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterizations…” as Heyes asserts. They are looking for ways to be authentic in spaces that may be largely homogenous, and in professions that may be largely male. Questions about hair are typically never just about hair.

They saw me sporting worlds of curls, yet would I admit to them how tough it was to get to that point? Would I tell them about the qualitative generational gap between Millennials and a few of the older professional staff of color: some of whom asserted that true professional style was wearing the hair straight and pulled back? Would I tell them about these conversations?

On the subject of hair, a male recruiter that attended a networking dinner for our students declared, “When it comes to your appearance, you do what you have to do to get that job. Your own expression of personal style comes later.” I cringed. A few other recruiters chimed in to admonish women specifically to wear the hair swept off of the face. In other settings, I’ve seen this question posed and witnessed career service professionals gasp at the thought that someone would face discrimination due to choice of hair style, among other things. I’ve witnessed this astonishment give way to awed silence, and students left without an answer. Then, I’ve seen other professionals admonish young women not to change a thing.

Since career services professionals know the concept of appropriate disclosure, I kept these anecdotes to a minimum in appointments. We all want to be taken seriously in our careers. Our students do, as do we. We want to have our personal and professional identity validated in the workplace. For many of us, your students and your colleagues, hair has a lot to do with that professional identity. In light of that, here is what I shared when students posed questions about hair and identity politics in the workplace:

Your experience is valid. Starting there is always a good idea. Students of color, low-income students, and/or first-generation college students are already working through varying intersections of their identities before they come to our offices. Often times, by the time they get here they have been silenced in both subtle and explicit ways. As student affairs professionals, we do well to understand that the career search process does not just involve crafting resumes, writing cover letters, strategizing searches, and so forth. We know that there is an internal process going on that is valid and that holds a variety of implications for their career-search process.

Reflect on your career values and which values you would look for in the workplace. Before an interview, I encourage students to get clear on the values they are looking for in a work environment. For example, it is important to me that I work in a context that is validating to my cultural sense of self (and that includes the natural way in which my hair grows and how I groom it). Typically, I assist the students in brainstorming a few of the values that they hold: large amounts of monetary capital? Cultural validation? Flexibility? Mentorship? Often times, this exercise has been particularly salient for the women of color that I work with. It is their time to decide what they want out of an experience. It often takes a lot of encouragement to sift through the opinions they have received from their community, family, friends, and industry professionals.

For example, a student might say that he or she values authenticity in the workplace that straightening/processing his or her hair feels inauthentic, but they were told by a family member that it should be done to get the job. While they are sifting through these opinions, I ask students to briefly reflect. Through what lens might a student have been given this advice? Does this line up with his or her value of (insert chosen values here)?  What are the salient and non-salient points of the advice a student was given? Posing questions allow career advisers to serve as a guide for students to work through that type of dissonance. It also allows students to understand the thing that they value and begin to explore professional opportunities that reflect those values.

Do your research on prospective employment opportunities. Search for information on the culture of the company / organization. The “culture” of an organization might include anything from organizational structures and reporting lines, spoken and / or unspoken workplace norms, leadership trends and more. Knowing this information helps our students to understand what a company values and can serve as a loose discerning point as to what it might be like to work there. Does this provide a direct answer to the question, “What should I do with my hair?” Not exactly. Yet it provides keen insight for students to make informed decisions on their career journey. For example, I encourage students to ask the questions: Are there any professional affinity groups? Who is in leadership and what does that reflect? What can I perceive about the norms of a particular atmosphere? Do I have enough information? As we reflect on this, I typically pull up the website for the office that I work within. We mine the “data” for the mission, the leadership, the programs, the services and I ask them to work through such questions as What insights does this give you about the culture of this organization? Now, what might that mean for your personal choices in clothing and hair in this atmosphere?

There are times that I have chosen to naturally stretch out/ straighten my hair and pull it back. This was particularly early on in my career path, when I did not feel equipped with enough experience or knowledge about the organization. Moreover, there were times that I decided to do a large bun or a complicated pompadour. Three measurements allowed me to make my decisions about race/gender expression in an interview setting: 1) Do I feel comfortable with the process it took to get my hair this way? 2) Does this style allow ample room to see my face? 3) Will this style hold without touch-ups after arriving to the interview site? This was the practical piece as these measurements allowed me to show strong non-verbal energy and did not require me to compromise my own cultural validity. Typically, my students take these measurements as a rubric that they can use, as well.

Keep it real and “mind the gap.” Brown talks about “the gap” in her book Daring Greatly. The gap is symbolic for the values that we aspire to and what actually exists. In my office, we talk in great detail about “the gap” that our students are navigating; the world as we wish it to be and the world that is. It is a concept that I chat about with my students, as well. Navigating identity politics in the workplace is a complicated thing because of the gap. While we rightly hope for settings in which such cultural expressions of hairstyle are widely appreciated, there is also the reality that in some circles, the appreciation is not there. There are times that our colleagues and our students may be faced with cold stares and uncomprehending eyes. It is inexpressibly tragic that this is the case. Yet, I must prepare them for the world that is. So, I keep it real and talk about what to do if they sense workplace discrimination at the point of their interview.

You may be thinking, “This sounds awfully complex for such a simple question: How should I wear my natural hair for an interview?” And you are right. Navigating through identity politics is inherently complex. Students, particularly women of color, are not asking trite questions about fashion. In these moments, they are looking for our understanding and guidance on the ways we navigate identity in the workplace. Thus, as student affairs professionals, we have to come with a bit more complexity than, “You should wear it off your face.”

End Notes

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Heyes, Cressida. (2014). Identity Politics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Hurtado, S., Milem, J., Clayton-Pedersen, A., & Allen, W. (1999). Enacting diverse learning environments: Improving the climate for racial/ ethnic diversity in higher education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Volume 28, No. 8. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

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About Jade T. Perry

Jade T. Perry is a writer, speaker, student affairs / higher education professional in the area of multicultural student affairs, and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Mystic Soul. She received a B.A. in Integrative Arts (concentrations in Theater, Communication Arts, & Writing) and an M. Ed in College Student Affairs. Jade regularly contributes to a variety of online platforms on topics such as culture, spirituality, holistic wellness, womanism, entertainment, career, and more. Her mission is to offer information, ideas, & counter-cultural narratives that will empower readers to thrive and to lovingly & creatively challenge secular and sacred systems toward greater levels of inclusion! And as Maya Angelou said, she strives to do all of these things “with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style”. Connect with her online at JadeTPerry.com, through Linkedin, or on Twitter @SAJadePerry1!