My hair. I love my type 4 hair. I love styling it. My hair and I get along great. But what I did not know was that my hair was going straight for a head-on collision with my PA career, almost ending it before it even began.
Growing up, I was taught to love my hair. I still remember the days when my mom would cornrow my hair, which was the style I wore for most of my childhood. As a teenager, I would spend countless hours styling my hair. I've worn it in cornrows, flat ironed, and relaxed. I've also worn twist-outs, braids, extensions, weaves, and wigs. In college, I alternated mostly between relaxing my hair and wearing it in braids.
I graduated with my master's degree in PA studies in May 2005. That summer, I went on a trip to the Caribbean to celebrate. I braided my hair for that trip. Thin cornrows in the front with individual braids in the back. I started interviewing for PA positions shortly after my return. I made sure to maintain my braids to keep them looking neat, including re-braiding when necessary. I went on one interview after another and another and another and another. No offers. I was discouraged and felt a little lost. I just didn't get it. My interviews went well. Actually, they went great. But no offers. Nothing. NOTHING! What was going on?
After some time, a friend helped me figure it out. She called me one day, and our conversation went something like this:
Friend: Hey Karine! How's the job search going?
Me: Well, you know. I'm going on a lot of interviews, and they are going well.
Friend: Any job offers yet?
Me: No. Not yet.
Friend: (after a pause) Karine, do you still have your hair in braids?
Friend: You need to take your braids out. That's why no one's offered you a job!
I was shocked. Dumbfounded even. I liked my braids. I had kept them neat and even re-braided my hair to keep them fresh. My braids were really beautiful. But I was unemployed. I lived with my sister. My parents were out of state. I had bills to pay, including student loans. I had savings but not much. Eventually, my savings were going to dry up. So, I had to do something.
As a Black person, you hear time and time again how important it is to present yourself for job interviews. Your skin color is a strike against you, so you have to bring your A game. Wear a suit. Firm handshake. Smile. Be confident. Be friendly. Stand out.
I spent hours practicing for my interviews, fixing my resume, learning how to write cover letters and follow-up thank you cards. I had become a professional interviewee. An unemployed professional interviewee who was having difficulty joining one of the top and fastest growing professions in America.
But, my friend, who is also Black, worked in corporate America. She had dealt with issues of how Black people must present themselves at work: the way we dress, the way we talk, and the way we wear our hair. So, that weekend, I took my braids out and relaxed my hair straight. I had two interviews scheduled over the next two weeks. I wore my suit and pulled my hair into a low bun. By the end of the two weeks, I had two job offers.
I learned something at that point. I learned that I needed to wear my hair straight and relaxed if I wanted to work as a PA and be taken seriously. So that's what I did for many years. I completely stopped wearing my hair in braids and other styles.
But I was bored. So bored. I loved changing my hairstyles, but now I felt stuck. And I didn't want to keep relaxing my hair. I needed to be true to myself. I wanted to wear my hair in a twist-out. So, I did one day. It's crazy to say that it took a lot of strength, but it did. And people seemed to like it. So after some time, I got even braver and decided to wear my hair in a beautiful flat-twist style.
A co-worker showed up in my office. The second she laid her eyes on me, she said "woah!" in total shock and then quickly left my office. Man, what a shot to my hair self-esteem that was. In fact, that's the last time I wore my hair in flat twists.
Wearing my hair in a wash and go resulted in co-workers asking to touch my hair or outright touching it. I will never understand why some people feel that it is OK to do so. Wearing my hair in Senegalese twists or box braids usually resulted in stares.
Happily, over the years, I've noticed people are starting to become more accepting of Black hair in all its glory. It is shocking that laws such as the Crown Act had to be passed to ban hair discrimination in the workplace. Can you believe that? Not being able to wear your hair the way it grew out of your head. And then seeing your non-Black colleagues dye their hair in unnatural colors but not being penalized. And all I wanted to do was wear my hair how I wanted it.
Admittedly, I was a part of the problem also. I worried too much about how people would react to my hair. I was worried about how I would be perceived as a PA. Would my colleagues take me seriously? Would the patients respect me? Now that I am entering my 18th year as a PA, I am proud to say that I have been able to return to my true self. I've worn my hair in Senegalese twists, box braids, wash and goes, and crochet braids. Currently, my hair is styled in minitwists and I love it.
Have you experienced challenges in your career from just being yourself? Share in the comments.
Karine Ngoie is an interventional pain management PA in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Remembering to be true to herself, respectful of others, and honest keeps her grounded personally and professionally. Karine is a 2022–2023 Op-Med Fellow. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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