Stephen Kearse’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
I sat quietly as my shorn hair fell, sprinkling my bare shoulders. I’d received haircuts in barbershops, shopping malls, salons, basements, garages and college dorms, but this was the first time I’d had my hair cut in a bedroom. I was thankful there were no mirrors in sight that would allow me to monitor its progress. I didn’t want to see what was happening. Feeling the hair migrate from my scalp to my shoulders, propelled by the metallic whizz of the scissors opening and closing, opening and closing, was enough.
I had avoided this haircut for months, hoping that it would never come, but it was here and it was raw.
“I think it looks good,” the barber, my girlfriend, said as she placed the scissors on the dresser. I smiled, thanking her, then hesitantly fingered my scalp. It was accessible in a way it hadn’t been in years. No longer buried beneath a canopy of soft, twirling curls, my scalp was now contained underneath a neat and manicured crown.
I got up and walked to the bathroom, reluctant to examine this new, “professional” look. Aesthetically, the cut had been a success. Though roughly nine inches of hair had been cut, it was still an afro, still globular. But now it was more of a snowglobe than a desk globe. Gawking at my head in the bathroom mirror, I tried to claim this cropped cut, but my eyes kept falling on the fragmented hairs on my shoulders. That debris was my afro, not this condensed mass on my scalp.
“You don’t like it, do you?” my girlfriend asked.
I couldn’t respond. For better or for worse, rage is a particularly hard emotion for me to articulate. And it was especially hard because, technically, I had allowed this haircut. I had requested it, even placing the scissors in her hand. But a decision made under extreme pressure is theatrical at best.
There was once a point in my relationship when “I think you should cut your hair” was one of my girlfriend’s most-used phrases, not too far below “I love you,” “How are you?” and “Good-night.” I usually responded to these haircut suggestions with a polite smile and an acknowledgment that yes, searching for a job with an afro might be a risk, but it was one I was willing to take.
But for a long time I never actually believed it was a risk. It became one, in my mind, only after months of direct and indirect criticism of my hair length, which was widely believed — not just by my girlfriend, but also by my friends and family — to be extending the length of my job search, despite the 25 interviews I’d had over an eight-month span. They repeatedly pinpointed my hair as the reason I didn’t have work; text messages, emails, side-eyes, and entire phone conversations were dedicated to this topic.
Before its transformation into a “risk,” my afro was just another benign extension of myself. I initially started growing it in college to save time and money on haircuts. It was a new look for me back then, and there were some initial challenges — such as tacky dyes, and a yearlong misunderstanding of leave-in conditioner — but as we grew together, I loved the way it came to make me feel, especially the way its visibility contrasted with my sometimes reclusive personality.
I had always been attentive to hair because my mom was frequently in and out of salons, often with me in tow. But until I started growing and maintaining my afro, I had never had a relationship with my own hair. Before the afro, when I wore my hair low, in a generic fade, haircuts were always a grudging necessity, my hair something to be dutifully monitored and manicured like grass in a yard; if my hair was long, it usually indicated neglect on my part, lack of commitment. Growing an afro made me see my hair and its length, for the first time, as commitment incarnate. To me, the phrase “Long hair, don’t care” was entirely wrong; I had long hair precisely because I did care.
According to my friends and family, my hair made me look as if I didn’t care — about being responsible, about being respectable, about being professional.
It takes a lot of work to achieve a so-called professional look. Beyond hair length, you also have to consider hairstyle, hair color, hair texture, clothing color, clothing fit, shoe color, jacket length, accent, attitude, appetite, attentiveness, and posture — and these are just a few of the seemingly infinite indicators by which the body is judged to indicate professionalism, or a lack thereof. In this all-encompassing regime, the body itself becomes a resume, a site for a kind of quick evaluation.
Job seekers aren’t totally powerless. Despite the unending and often unclear criteria for “looking professional,” there is room for choice. But choice is more than the capacity for affirmation, to choose what is given. It is also the capacity for denial, to choose not to choose. For months, while I chose to wear a suit, a tie and dress shoes to interviews, and chose to comb and clean my hair, I did not choose to cut it.
I thought this was a defensible choice. It even seemed practical, in a way, as I didn’t want to work in a place where the length of my hair eclipsed the quality of my work. If my afro could be an obstacle to success, why would my black skin be any different? With no way of knowing who would be interviewing me, it seemed unnecessarily cautious, even cynical, to modify my appearance in such a dramatic way.
On one hand, I recognize the privilege and perhaps even the naivete of making my appearance and job search a vehicle of politics, especially since my girlfriend was then paying the bulk of our bills and my family had provided critical support before she and I moved in together. But on the other hand, I also recognize the price of always avoiding politics. Sure, maybe getting a job and keeping it is a better strategic move than holding out for a job with an employer who has no particular opinion on afros. A black guy with money and a job might have a greater capacity to make his mark on the world than a black guy with just an afro. But the reason I felt so distraught after finally surrendering to the campaign to cut my hair was because those two guys could have easily been the same person. The more I sought to enable this union, the more it was opposed by those around me, who accused me of being willing to sacrifice my future for “vanity” and “idealism.”
I can’t deny that vanity was a factor — I do feel more handsome when sporting an afro. But the accusation of idealism stung, because the “ideal” to which I was supposedly aspiring was simply to be myself, and to have a job that didn’t require me to involuntarily alter that self for arbitrary, prejudiced reasons. To me, this seemed like one of the most benign stances I could take, especially since there was no way to definitively know if my hair was even a relevant factor for potential employers. Even in a world without racism, after all, I could lose out on a job for a host of other arbitrary reasons — because of the color of my tie, or the color of someone else’s tie, or because the interviewer hated people from Georgia.
Six weeks after the haircut, seven interviews later, I finally found a full-time job. I don’t know if the haircut had anything to do with it, but more than a few friends have remarked, “It’s already growing back! That wasn’t so bad, right?” They don’t understand: the hair itself was never the point. It was collateral damage, the medium of the troubling message I received that black people can be seen as “professional” only under certain narrow conditions, if at all.
In the grand scheme of things, I know that my sacrifice was not particularly significant. Many people, black and otherwise, have suffered far greater losses in the quest for work and financial security. But in my mind I keep returning to the haircut precisely because of its insignificance, its triviality.
I thought of Kobena Mercer, who once wrote about how afros in the ’60s and ’70s required an “ensemble of style” for their wearers to be seen as radicals. Anyone could have an afro, but that afro became more than just hair only when it was accompanied by boots, leather jackets, berets, and dark shades. I didn’t wear any of those things to my interviews; I just wore a suit and tie. So if my hair all by itself — literally just elongated strands of keratin and melanin, not even accompanied by a “radical ensemble” — could be considered a potential barrier to employment, what did that say about the rest of me? Is the real “radical ensemble” my body itself? Is just being black a radical act?
I can’t know the answers to these questions, because my haircut was the product of speculation about how potential employers might respond to my hair. I’ll never know for certain how they would have responded. But the fact that so many of the people in my life vigorously shared in this speculation and fear suggests that the day I gave in and got my hair cut, hair wasn’t my only loss, and perhaps I wasn’t the only loser.
Stephen Kearse regularly writes about race, hip-hop, history, feminism and film at The Black Tongue. He was formerly the online editor for RESPECT. Magazine.