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I'm a Black Woman Looking for a Job. Why Does My Hairstyle Matter?

My mother, my daughters and I have all faced many stereotypes about our hair — we just want to be ourselves

By Dartinia Hull

This story was supposed to be about my graying hair and its natural texture, and how that fits into my job hunt, and it is. But just as I started reaching out for interviews, my mom called to tell me she needed to be examined for unusual stomach pains.

Two women smiling while sitting in a car. Next Avenue, Black women's hair
The writer, Dartinia Hull, on right, with her mother   |  Credit: Dartinia Hull

Since then, she's had an upper GI (gastrointestinal) CT scan. She has been prescribed lots of colorful drugs, and nondescript medicinal marijuana. She's had a port installed.

Mom didn't want chemotherapy, but radiation won't help stage four pancreatic cancer, not even to target the spots that are on her liver, so Mom will do chemo, and she'll get a wig.

I know this wig, or variations of it. I've spent my share of days in waiting rooms in standard protocol for ovarian cancer. My hair thinned to the point of bald patches during my stage 1A granulosa - I could feel the strands detach from my scalp.

Suddenly, my story about graying hair and non-relaxed, natural textures seems small.

That won't happen with Mom. Her protocol of weekly chemo is for the rest of her life. We are in the world of wigs, and Mom can have Chaka Khan/Studio 54/1976 hair, if that's what she wants.

Suddenly, my story about graying hair and non-relaxed, natural textures seems small. This is despite the fact that a friend pays $120 a month to be sure her steel-gray curls remain a honey blonde because she spent a year looking for a job and felt the pressure of a room full of younger workers with melanated (highly pigmented) strands, dewy skin, and shorter resumes.

"I like the gray," I told her once.

"Let's hope you never have to look for a job," she dryly replied.

The Necessity of the CROWN Act

Feeling like this is a small story is still despite the fact that my spouse and I worried our dreadlocked daughter would be stereotyped when she tried to enter the labor force. It's also despite the fact that another friend, a damn fine writer, wore a chin-length bob wig for years while transitioning from a perm to dreadlocks. Her job, at an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), frowned upon locs.

Hence the necessity of the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, a "law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment or educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots," according to

It's a law that has been adopted in 14 states, and was filed, but did not pass, in 24 states. It's a law that says the standards of women of color are just as valid as the Eurocentric ones traditionally imposed upon us. It's a law that says my hair is not subject to others' opinions on professionalism, and my natural curls and my daughter's locs cannot be discriminated against in hiring.

Simply put, the CROWN Act, created by four women of color in 2019 and moved closer to federal law in 2020 by the U.S. House of Representatives, aims to ban discrimination based on African American hairstyles. 

My state has filed, but has not passed, this law, nor has my city. My daughter's city has embraced it, and she and her dreadlocks are, at least on paper, safe, as are her guy friends who have locs and twists.

What Do Hairstyles Have to Do With Work?

Even with the labor force in a massive shake-up, there's this thing hovering, relative to my job search, that hiring managers will find my resume goes back too far, and with my natural curls, will take to heart all the stereotypes that can come with a Black woman with natural, unpermed, unstraightened 4B hair.

Since this is a story about hair, a little education about curl patterns: 1A is bone straight. 4C is the tightest, zigg-zaggiest curl pattern, and it's subject to shrinkage and breakage if not treated with care. I've got 3B and 4B curls and waves. The higher the number and letter, the more substantial the structure. Nothing comes after 4C for hair.


I'm familiar with a search for "unprofessional" styles in 2016; the research revealed photos of Black women and our hairstyles. Searching the website Medium pulls up stories about AI and algorithms, flawed due to creator bias, and rarely in an older Black woman's favor.

A quick glance at Google shows "professional hairstyles for work" can lean heavily on styles for white women, with a couple for Black women and only a few for women who are graying tossed in.

Widely circulated stories are beginning to pay attention to the subject, but that's relatively new. The racial reckoning of 2020 has put a new focus on issues of racial bias, but I'm not sure how that plays when it comes down to who looks decidedly non-Eurocentric in a boardroom.

In a recent interview, the woman I spoke with — she has a Ph.D in counseling, runs a magazine, teaches on the college level — talked about going natural, and how even she dreaded her colleagues' and employers' reactions.

Then I saw threads on LinkedIn, explaining how the poster decided to be fully herself, natural hair, locs, braids and all, to hell with what an employer or would-be employer thought, and if that's not beautiful rebellion, then I don't know what is.

I'm ashamed to say I conformed to a Eurocentric TV anchor hairstyle out of fear.

At this time last year, I was working on a Bonnie Raitt white streak (I was THIS close) and loving all the sparkles.

I had landed a fabulous new perfect-for-me job, in a pandemic. I'd gotten a red color rinse, supposedly to brighten up my face and honor the gray, but my Bonnie Raitt vision didn't work out.

I'd steadily let the dark roots with their sparkles take over again, but unexpectedly faced with yet another job hunt, having graying hair gave me pause.

As Zoom interviews began for a job that I really, REALLY wanted, I conferred with a friend and then rushed to my stylist, this time to cover the sparkly roots, and also to flat iron my super wavy/4B natural hair.

The curls, my friend said, are more casual than a blowout. And the red warms up your face.

The red is nice, even if it's not what I initially wanted. But I'm ashamed to say I conformed to a Euro-centric TV anchor hairstyle out of fear. Doing these things out of fear rather than desire feels icky.

With natural textures, red curls, and a skunk-like black streak of new growth with some gray splashed in, I'm wondering who is looking back at me from the mirror, and who it is I want to see in that glass.

My Daughters, Me, and Our Hair

About 15 years ago, I went natural for a few reasons. Relaxers/perms, "the creamy crack," as perms were called, burned my scalp and left raw, oozing sores. I still have eczema in the places that were most damaged. Once you get a perm, you have to keep getting them, or reverse track for a couple years or so in order to grow out the relaxed strands. Or get it all chopped off, which wouldn't work with my lumpy head.

My spouse and I faced mounting pressure to perm our daughters' 4B and 4C hair, to make it "easier" for relatives to "deal with" during summer beach trips, and to make them "presentable." But what's easier and more presentable than happy children who are having fun?

I instead wanted to encourage them to love their natural textures and to never use their hair as an excuse to not pursue something. Plus, why would I knowingly burn children's scalps?

We had begun to hear terms such as "good hair," and "nappy" when our daughters' hair was not slicked down with Afro Sheen (which was good stuff) and pulled so tight their heads hurt.

Once, when our younger daughter had a beautiful crown of straw twists, a relative at a gathering said she looked "picky." That's a reference to pickaninny. We left.

I was prepared to hate, but determined to work with, my hair, but even the term "work with" implies there is something wrong, and there isn't.

In order to walk the talk for my daughters, I embarked on a two-year journey of twisting and trimming my hair to grow it back to its natural state, a two-stage process that was needed for follicles to heal. I was prepared to hate, but determined to work with, my hair, but even the term "work with" implies there's something wrong, and there isn't.

So every other Saturday, my daughters and I marched to the hair salon and we all got our hair done in two-strand twists, or cornrows for our more active seasons. My older daughter debated getting locs. My younger daughter, tender-headed, stopped screaming at the sight of a comb, and she occasionally had a small amount of color woven into her hair.

They played golf, and soccer and tennis. They swam with abandon. They wore ribbons for picture days. Their hair grew stronger, and we began using all-natural products for conditioning treatments.

My follicles healed, and the hair that grew was the thickest mass of multi- textured curls and waves I'd ever had.

We all occasionally flat ironed just because it was fun to change up, and because trimming the ends during a fresh twist meant the ends would unravel. But we quickly went back to the twists. For prom, our stylist created a stunning chignon of two-strand twists for the older daughter, with a beaded band woven in.

Finding a Wig for My Mom

My mom is a young mom, 71 to my 54, and when she was in her early 20s, her natural hair fell in soft waves to her waist.

People often stopped her in the streets to ask her if she was "mixed," and one of her buddies, disgusted, said Mom, also disgusted, should cut her hair into an afro.

"She said I couldn't be down for the people with all that long hair," Mom said.

The afro had become popular during the 1960s as a symbol of "of rebellion, pride and empowerment", according to a story in the BBC, and it became an "assertion of Black identity in contrast to previous trends inspired by mainstream white fashions."

"Do you remember the day I cut it?" Mom asks me. "This science teacher over at Winthrop (College) had some kind of machine, and the locks just fell to the floor. That was so dumb."

But my mom's texture didn't work for an afro. The lighter weight of her hair, however, released her 2B-patterned waves.

Miss Brenda, a woman I have seen upon occasion at the grocery store deli counter, has the prettiest gray twists you will ever see. But she'll tell you she's only at the start of her natural journey, about 6 months in, and she wants my hair: curly and wavy and unapologetic.

Miss Brenda will also stop everything to pray for your mom's health and comfort. In the middle of the grocery store deli.

Mom is preparing herself for a lot. If getting a government-issue wig will help her cope with the effects of the rat poison that's about to be shot through her veins, then that's what we'll do.

This makes me feel both insignificant and powerful, and proud of the road she helped pave when she haplessly lopped her locks.

"How's your job search coming?" Mom asks as we drive west through my hometown, following the winter sunset. "Do you like your part-time gig?"

"I love it," I say. "I'm waiting to hear from one place, but I'm doing a lot of freelancing. And I'm working on another story about hair. About natural hair, and gray hair, and all the stereotypes that we fall into."

I tell her, "I wrote about your big cut in '77."

"Dumb decision." Mom shakes her head. "When can I get the wig?"

"I'll check," I say. "Chaka Khan?"

"Diana Ross," Mom replies.

Contrib. Dartinia Hull
Dartinia Hull is an award-winning writer, editor and aspiring beach bum who is based in the South. Her writing has been published in MUTHA Magazine, CNN, The Bitter Southerner, Age of Awareness and The Charlotte Observer. Her poetry will be included in a forthcoming anthology. Read More
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