This past winter, I found myself in front of a children’s learning center for a job interview. Nervousness tingled in my jaw, worked its way down my body, and made every muscle contract with tension. I just wanted to go home and wrap myself in the comfort of endless home improvement episodes about whether or not to keep an old, decent single family home or exchange it for a bigger, newly built one. Of course, if I even wanted to rent a one-bedroom apartment in this lifetime, I would have to get a better job, a job like this one. I had to go inside.
This was far from being my first job hunt. When I graduated at the peak of the Great Recession, I had already spent a whole semester applying to jobs. Each online application read like a love letter: I detailed how much I admired the hiring party, explained what I had to offer, and opened or closed with a flowery quote from some great thinker. The majority of my emails never received even the acknowledgment of a rejection in an era of corporate ghosting.
I returned home, a black, 20-something-year old woman, unemployed but determined to not stay that way for long. After repeated failed attempts to break into the non-profit sector, I applied for almost any local job that did not involve driving an eighteen-wheeler. Still, I had no luck. I decided to disconnect from the world of digital applications and took to pounding the pavement.
I still looked online, but only for businesses that wanted you to turn in an application on-site. I combined this with searching for “Help Wanted” signs in windows. This new hybrid method required shedding my new ‘hopelessly unemployed’ uniform of dark fleece pajamas and resisting my happier days femme attire of bold prints, textured fabrics, and saturated hues. Instead, I clad myself completely in job hunt camo. This being a bland business casual, which conveys I am malleable; I am a blank slate to be filled with a company’s mission; I could be one of you.
For every company, I tweaked my fashion the way that you tailor your resume to different companies. A lavender button up added a soft hint of color over khakis, hinting at an employee who could be empathetic as needed for clients but still had business sense. A white collarless shirt paired with gray pants suggested an employee who could be corporate-minded, but was ready to work from the bottom up. A very white, crisp button up with black pants, worn during the heat of summer, underscored that I was ready to serve food all night long without breaking a sweat.
At first, I felt like a chameleon, shifting from one environment to another, showing up to present a full picture. I still didn’t make much headway, but I thought that surely I must be on the right path. That was before I started to pay attention to evidence that something in particular might be coloring my employability or lack thereof.
I caught a hint on the day that I decided to take on the mall. I headed to a shoe store that had posted an ad online. I entered, feet covered in shoes similar to the ones sold in the store: black leather with weaving in the front, topped with leather tassels, and in the back, a small heel provided a tiny lift. I walked straight to the register, where a young, white woman who couldn’t have been more than my age, did little to acknowledge my presence. I greeted her anyway, smiled widely, and asked for an application, a pile of which I could clearly see were right in front of her.
“We ran out. Maybe we will have more printed tomorrow,” she said, not making much eye contact, and covering the stack with a binder. With my heart residing somewhere in my stomach, I muttered that I would be back, said thanks, and left.
A different week, a different place, I caught yet another hint. I went to a hiring beauty supply store that is part of a well-known chain. I had already filled out my application at home. I walked up to a friendly saleswoman and asked to speak to a manager. She looked at the papers in my hand and seemed startled. After a short pause, she said, “Come back tomorrow. It would be better if you could give those to the manager when she comes in.” I agreed and started shopping because I could not resist the siren call of an eyeliner deal.
Suddenly, I heard a customer in the same aisle ask a question that required a different saleswoman to check with her manager for an answer. I don’t know what made me do it, but I casually walked behind them as they sought out the manager. Lo and behold, the knowledgeable manager turned out to be she who had told me to come back tomorrow for the manager. I looked around and noticed that there was not a single person of color ringing up customers, stocking shelves, or wandering the floor to assist customers. In that moment, I felt the familiar reminder of a force that I could not control. All I could do was put down the eyeliner and walk out.
These are just two of an endless list of examples, of paperwork blatantly hidden and “lost” in drawers, of managers stopping employees from handing out applications, and on and on. There was no true power in trying to be a chameleon. As a black woman in the American South, I would never be the default. Trying to replicate fashion culture from one company to another lent me no real power. So, instead of attempting an impressionable style, I began to wear what authentically represented me: vintage shirts with dress pants, shiny blue shirts with fitted black pants, patterned dark sleeveless base layers with bold cardigans.
In the parking lot of the learning center, uneasiness hovered over me. I had been called in for an interview after submitting an application online. Whenever I’m not sure that the interviewer knows that I am a person of color prior to a meeting, anxiety strikes. I inhaled, opened the minivan door, and swung my legs out of the vehicle. My body straightened, fortifying my spine. My black heels bloomed with their floral pattern as they moved across the ground. As my feet rocked in an even stride of heel, toe, heel, toe, power surged from my legs and up my torso. I made it to the door and walked inside of the building. A quick chime alerted them to the presence of a guest. I sat in a chair and waited.
A blonde head tentatively poked out of a doorway down the hall and then back in. Finally, the curious woman came into the waiting room. Not looking entirely in my direction, she asked, “May I help you?” I was the only one in the room. It was my appointed interview time. Yet, her air suggested that I was an unexpected visitor.
In similar situations in the past, I might have folded into myself and withdrawn into an inescapable feeling of defeat. But this time I stood up, brushing off a small piece of lint that had landed in a crease of my diamond-textured black skirt. I felt fully grounded and present. I reached my hand out to a woman who would definitely never hire me, drew my closed mouth into a half grin, and opened it to state clearly and simply, “I’m here for my interview.”