How to Succeed at a Summer Job: Look White and Christian

Recent news shows bias is still getting in the way of work for young people of color.

By Jamilah King Jul 08, 2011

After a couple of advocacy internships in high school, I thought I’d hit the big time when I landed a part-time gig at one of my favorite sportswear retailers during the summer after my freshman year in college. The store was situated nicely in downtown San Francisco, and for most of the summer I smiled and waved to greet customers, kept the displays tidy and ran shoe orders for the waves of customers and tourists who came in. I did it all as one part of a mostly young, seemingly hip multicultural staff who looked to be the perfect ambassadors for the company’s image. And then one day I made what ended up to be a game changing decision: I stopped straightening my hair and went natural.

My supervisor, a white male in his early thirties, never said anything directly to make me think that I had informally gone against company policy. But within a day I found myself tucked away on an upstairs floor, folding t-shirts and greeting the trickle of customers who could brave two flights of stairs to see over-priced backpacks.

I can’t be certain if it was my hair that shifted things. But after talking with several friends, I realized that my circumstances weren’t unique. And recent news shows that it can get much worse for young workers of color, who are discriminated against and sometimes fired because of their appearance or religion.

Whether it’s at McDonald’s, a local summer camp, or any number of retail stores, working through your teenage and college years has become a rite of passage in many communities. And for many it has long been an urgent necessity, either to pay for school or help make familial ends meet. But the recession and ensuing slow crawl toward recovery has changed all that. While young prospective workers in general are saddled with record levels of unemployment, young workers of color face an even bleaker economic outlook. And in an economy that is driven by the service and retail industries–industries that are notoriously image conscious–young workers of color may be more vulnerable than ever to the biases of their employers. 

Last month, 20-year-old college student Hani Khan made headlines when she filed suit against Hollister, a subsidiary of Abercrombie & Fitch, for religious discrimination. Khan is a practicing Muslim who wears a headscarf in accordance with religious tradition. Before she was hired in October of 2009 at a Northern California shopping mall, she was asked if she could wear a hijab that fell in line with the company’s official "Look Policy", and she agreed. Khan had been working at the store for four months when, after restocking items, she was spotted by a district manager. Less than a week later, she was fired.

"When I was asked to remove my scarf after being hired with it on, I was demoralized and felt unwanted," Khan told the San Mateo County Times.

"For an employer to, point-blank, to require an employee to relinquish their religious practice is a violation of our cherished civil rights laws," Zahra Kahn, executive director of the Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Times. "It’s really important that individual rights are protected and the 1964 Civil Rights Act is upheld."

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the country’s workplace discrimination laws, agreed. After an investigation, the commission ruled in September that Khan had been wrongfully fired. After failed attempts to reach a settlement with the company, Khan decided to take her case to court.

Abercrombie has a particularly long and troubled history with discrimination claims. The company has faced at least five high-profile lawsuits for discrimination in the past decade, including a 2004 class action suit in which the store was ordered to pay a settlement worth more than $40 million to black, Latino, Asian American and female workers who successfully argued that white men were being favored for advancement positions. Just last month, a federal judge in Oklahoma ruled in favor of the EEOC in its accusing the company of bias for not hiring a Muslim teenager who wore a hijab.

But while Abercrombie has certainly been one of the most visible retailers to have trouble with its workers of color, it’s not the only one. Just this week American Apparel settled a lawsuit with Christopher Renfro, a black former employee, for more than $300,000. Renfro said that a coworker repeatedly called him "nigger." The company had previously dismissed his claims and instead insisted that it was as case of a coworker singing along with rap lyrics. An arbiter in Oakland didn’t buy it.

In Khan’s case, the complaint she filed in court on June 27 states that the defendants acted with "malice or reckless indifference to the protected rights" of Khan, and that in addition to a loss in earnings, she’s suffered "humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional distress."

Araceli Martinez-Olguin, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society-Employment Center, which filed Khan’s complaint, told that the incident "shook [Khan’s] belief and understanding of the society that we live in." Martinez-Olguin noted that even after 9/11, her client had never faced such overt discrimination in her community or school.

These sorts of cases take on added significance given today’s economy. The overall unemployment rate hovers just above 9 percent, but jobless numbers for prospective black and Latino workers is much worse, at 16 percent and nearly 12 percent, respectively.

But numbers for jobless youth are even higher. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for young people between the ages of 16 and 19, the unemployment rate is just over 24 percent, which is only slightly better than a year ago. The unemployment rate for black youth in the same age bracket is nearly double that, at 40.7 percent. When the overall youth unemployment rate for last July edged up over 19 percent, it was the highest since the country began keeping records in 1948. 

Melian Carter-Gilkey is program manager at Enterprise for High School Students, a San Francisco organization that offers career counseling support to students looking for summer jobs, and she’s seen first hand the difficulties young people face in today’s job market. "High school students are now competing with adults with college educations for entry level or retail jobs," she said. "Very often students miss out on opportunities because they don’t have the flexibility in their schedules because of school."

To help offset some of these challenges, Carter-Gilkey says that she’s been encouraging students to be creative in their job searches, and also consider unpaid volunteer and internship positions.

But young workers lament that volunteering simply doesn’t pay the bills.

Additional research for this story was compiled by Bryan Gerhart.