Recruiter Realness: The Racist, Sexist, Classist Views of Black People’s Hair

Black women with natural hairstyles are less likely to get job interviews.

Under normal circumstances, upon seeing such a social media headline, I’d give a judgmental eye roll, leave a snarky comment, and keep scrolling. But current circumstances are not normal. 

So on occasion, when I see such an article, I caution my social media friends about the drawbacks of sharing “old news” clickbait. Because let’s face it: Discrimination based on Black women’s hairstyles is nothing new. And sure enough, I was convinced this article about bias and hairstyles wasn’t a new story, that it was being shared from months or even years ago. 

Except, I was wrong. When I opened the article with the intention of grabbing the (assumed old) date to post in the comments (like any cynical know-it-all would do), I was surprised to discover that it was posted on Aug. 12. New article, old problem. Still, I grudgingly decided to read the story, a CNN article, with an open mind in hopes there would be some exciting, groundbreaking revelations.

As I was going through the story, I had no complaints, misgivings, or criticisms…until I reached the part that read: 

“The studies involved hundreds of participants of different races, who were asked to screen potential job candidates in the same way as recruiters, giving them a score for competence, professionalism and other factors, based on mocked-up Facebook and LinkedIn profiles.”

This phrase in particular stopped me: “…screen potential job candidates in the same way as recruiters…” I sat with the troubling rhetoric of this for a few days.

The Stereotyping of an Entire Profession

As a Black recruiter, I was pissed. I realize that my lens isn’t the norm, and in many cases recruiting departments lack the diversity they are charged with promoting. Still, I wholeheartedly reject the perception put forth that professionalism was a deciding factor in the interview selection process — because it isn’t, at least not for me.

I work hard to make sure this type of discrimination is the exception and not the rule. I am deliberate and intentional in acknowledging and addressing my individual biases and setting an example for other recruiters to do the same so they don’t adversely affect our talent pools.

When Professional Becomes Personal

Meanwhile, as a Black woman, I felt conflicted. I stopped chemically straightening my hair about 10 years ago so my nieces (biological and chosen) would feel a sense of pride and feel more inclined to embrace their beautiful natural curls. Even as they see my natural hair, people with whom I only interact with professionally rarely, if ever, do. That is not because I think my natural hair isn’t professional; it’s because my ability to style my hair is limited and blown-out hair takes me less time and effort.

I understand having my hair blown dry and flat-ironed looks like conformity, but for me it’s really simply a matter of utility. Nonetheless, like I said, I’m conflicted.

There have been only a few significant instances when I thought about my hair through the lens of professionalism: 

Hair As Distraction: “You Look Like Bo Derek”

I had returned from a family vacation and went to work with my hair in cornrows that my mother had neatly coiffed. I was bombarded with inquiries and comments like, “How long did it take?”, “Why didn’t you get beads like in Jamaica?”, “Does it hurt?”, “I wish my hair did that,” “That’s so neat”, “You look like Bo Derek.” 

By early afternoon, I had my fill and wanted to get on with my work without interruption. I went into the bathroom and took my cornrows out. 

That totally backfired and started a new set of questions. Knowing how my hair looks fresh out of cornrows and braids, I shouldn’t have expected to be left alone. 

Hair As Juvenile: “You Won’t Be Taken Seriously”

If you’ve ever worked with me, you know that once I throw my hair in a ponytail, some serious work is about to be done. The location of said ponytail lets one know if I’m totally stressed or available for collaboration. These are not deliberate styles; they are unintentional and a way for me to keep my hair out of my face and from nervously twirling it around my finger. The only exceptions are the buns (reserved when I’m feeling extra fancy) and a style that my former co-worker refers to as the Black Barbie (it’s brushed in tightly and slick and there’s “hangtime”).

That said, I recall an instance, my Friday off, when the only reason I went into the office was to meet with a director who was leading a big talent development project team that I was a part of. I took extra care that morning to achieve Black Barbie excellence. It was our first face-to-face interaction, and we quickly built a rapport. 

She is also a Black woman, slightly older, and decided to offer me some “sisterly advice”. She told me that my ponytail was childish, unprofessional, and that I would not be taken seriously or invited into certain rooms if I chose that style over something more mature. 

Hair As Disguise: “I Didn’t Know That Was You”

Since “going natural” a decade ago, I give my hair a break every summer and limit the number of times I visit the salon to have my hair blown dry and flat-ironed — though I’ll make an exception if I have a public appearance related to my work. Although I favor a wash-and-go, I get easily frustrated when I can’t get my curls “just right” and I’m sure people wouldn’t take too kindly to me showing up wearing a baseball cap looking like DJ Quik

So when I had a resume workshop scheduled one evening, I had enough time to style my natural curls and give my hair time to air dry — no blow-drying, no flat-ironing, no curling. I arrived at the conference room and spotted the project manager whom I had teamed up with on five other occasions over the past two years. He didn’t recognize me. He commented, “I’ve never seen you with your hair like that. I didn’t know that was you.”

Here’s the deal: How I or anyone else wears their hair should not be a factor in deciding competency for a particular position. “Professionalism” needs to be reengineered. Our ideas and beliefs about what qualifies as “professional” are rooted in racist, sexist, and classist systems. We should be working to dismantle them, not masking them in respectability tropes. I long for a day when “the way recruiters screen candidates” means:

  1. Scoring candidates higher for competency, creativity, and innovation rather than “professionalism”
  2. Advocating for candidates who are rejected because they don’t appear to “fit” a homogenous culture
  3. Pushing back on interviewers who engage in these discriminatory practices

Keirsten Greggs is a talent acquisition consultant and career coach. In 2017 she founded TRAP Recruiter, LLC, to bring trust, relationship-building, accountability, and a proactive approach back into the recruiting lifecycle. She engages with a broader audience via her blog, as a guest speaker, as a guest on various podcasts, facilitating workshops and training, and as creator of the #RecruiterProblems meme series.

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