Job Interviews, Diversity and the Feminist Woman of Color

04/28/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015
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My mom is disappointed in me.

I'm on the way to a job interview and she's suddenly lost all hope that I would have a chance at landing this position. It all started when she asked me what I was wearing to the interview.

"I'm wearing a cute tweed blazer, a white peplum top with a high neckline and a pencil skirt," I say.

"Perfect!" says mom. "What about shoes?"

This was when the conversation took a turn for the worse.

"I have on a pair of cute, black, pointed-toe flats," I say.

"But you have your heels in your bag... right?" she asks.

I take a moment to think about my response before saying a word. The truth is that I do not have a pair of high-heels in my bag. I didn't forget them at home; I just never planned on wearing them.

"If I have to prance around in heels that I can barely walk in to get a job, I don't want that job," I say.

I begin to feel the frustration building in my mother's voice. She wants to tell me, "Ashley, this is no time for your politics," but she bites her tongue.

"Did you straighten your hair?" she asks.

Here's where it got really interesting.

"Momma, my hair is curly and I chose to wear it this way today," I say.

She's shocked. She goes on to tell me that she adores my scalp full of spiral shaped locks (and I know she does), but that employers would expect me to have a more "polished" look. My mom is really coming from a place of love. She understands that preparing for an interview as a woman, let alone a woman of color is a job in itself. What she did not understand, was that her Afro-Latina, feminist, daughter, made very conscious decisions about how she would present herself that day.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy strapping on a cute pair of stilettos from time to time, but it should always be a choice. My male counterparts are not required to wear heels to a job interview, so why should I be? A pair of heels does not make me any more or less qualified than the next candidate; therefore, wearing them should remain an option. However, there are plenty of employers who would not hire a woman who wears flats to an interview. Those employers would say that there is a time and place for everything, and that a job interview is not the time, nor place.

We all know about patriarchy in the workplace. It affects who is getting interviewed, who is getting the jobs, and what employees get paid once they start those jobs. According to The American Association of University Women, Black women earned 64 percent of full-time white male earnings in 2012. Latinas earned 53 percent of the same figures.

Before women of color can even secure the jobs that we are often underpaid for, we are faced with difficult decisions about our appearances. Wearing my hair curly is both a political decision and a personal choice. I have to acknowledge that my mixed Afro-Latina heritage has given me both a lighter complexion and a looser curl pattern than most Black women. These factors alone grant me privileges in the workplace, privileges that must be acknowledged in order to have an honest conversation.

My personal journey with hair was a long one. Latinos in the Caribbean are especially keen on denying their African ancestry. My elders never considered curly hair to be beautiful. Many women in my family have had to chop their hair in order to recover from damaging chemical relaxers while they were unknowingly attempting to conform to skewed standards of white beauty. I followed in the same path as the rest of the women in family and flat-ironed the culture right out of my hair, until I too, was forced to chop my locks in order to regain a healthy mane. It took me a while to love the hair that grew out of my scalp. Now that I spoil my hair with love and moisture, I'm told that my hair is beautiful but not professional.

Women of color live in a world that tells them to "lean in," but in order to "lean in" to new and sometimes uncomfortable experiences, these women often give up a piece of their identities. I'm studying journalism at a school that discusses "diversity" almost ad nauseam. I most recently attended a university-sponsored panel about diversity in the workplace. When the moderator asked for audience feedback, I offered my opinion by stating that employers need to accept the "diverse" individual as an entire entity in order to support a truly multicultural environment. I went on to share the latest experience I had with my mother and explained that women of color often agonize over how their natural hair will be perceived in the workplace.

The panel was quite diverse in terms of both race and sexual orientation. The white woman on the panel decided to respond by saying that many people in her company wouldn't view "wild crazy hair" or "something like a nose-piercing" as polished or professional. Needless to say, I disagreed. She had just compared the thick and curly hair that grows out of millions of women's heads to a nose piercing. She was rallying for more women in the workplace, but did not understand the intersectional forms of oppression that affect women of color. She did not realize that her words were a part of the problem. Our hair is not wild and crazy, nor is it distracting. Our hair is polished, professional and work-appropriate.

The mentality that natural hair is somehow unkempt is one reason why many attempts at diversifying the workplace fail. We may see many Black women on broadcast news, for example, but how many of those Black women would feel that their jobs would still be there if they decided to go natural without notice? How many women do we see on broadcast news stations in hijabs? Sure, corporate America values diversity. Having a few black men and women in the office can make companies appear to be "equal opportunity" employers. But how can we truly embrace multiculturalism if we are forcing these employees to "tame" their hair and water down their cultures? Why do companies only want diluted versions of some of their most qualified candidates?

The bottom line is that we should feel comfortable making our own choices about our shoes and our hair without worrying that we're putting our jobs and our financial futures on the line. If I want to straighten my hair and throw on a pair of heels, I'm doing it because I look damn cute, not because I need to get paid. If I wear my hair curly and slip into a pair of flats, I'm also doing it because I look damn cute, not because I want you to hire me.

My mother and I shared an intimate conversation after our slight disagreement. I told her that I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I am and now that I have got a firm grip on my identity, all I want to do is unapologetically walk in that light. She told me that she was proud and that she'd always support me. She gets it. Adults spend the majority of their lives in the workplace. I will not spend the best years of my life subscribing to someone else's version of "professional." My work will speak for itself and my hair will take up as much space in a room as it pleases. And no, you can't touch it.