Black people punished for their hair
Only black people are shamed when they choose to wear hairstyles consistent with their natural hair texture.
It was the fall of my first year of law school, in 2005, and I was headed to my first interview for a legal internship. I wore my only interview outfit, a conservative navy skirt suit and a cream blouse. A classmate complimented me on the look. Then she added, “But you’ll never look really professional with your hair in dreadlocks.”
I was reminded of that day as I watched video footage of a black student in Gretna, La., crying as she was forced to leave school because school officials objected to her hair. They claimed her box braids violated a dress code prohibition against “unnatural” hair styles because the braids included hair extensions. Extensions are sometimes used in black hairstyles, like braids, that don’t require the use of damaging chemical straighteners. The student and a classmate sent home for the same reason were not allowed to return until a judge issued a temporary restraining order against the school after both girls had missed several days of classes.
Far too often, black students are humiliated, shamed or banned from school because of bias against natural black hair. Just one week earlier, a 6-year-old black boy in Florida was barred from school because of his locs, also known as dreadlocks. And last year, twin sisters in Massachusetts were barred from extracurricular activities and threatened with suspension from their charter school because of hair extensions in their box braids, even though white students at the school were allowed to wear hair extensions in other styles.
The shaming and regulation of black people’s hair starts in school, or even earlier, but it doesn’t end there. Consider the case of Chastity Jones, who was selected for a customer support position in Mobile, Ala. After Ms. Jones completed an interview, the company’s human resources manager told her she could not be hired “with the dreadlocks.” Locs, the manager feared, “tend to get messy,” although she acknowledged that Ms. Jones’s weren’t. When Ms. Jones refused to cut off her hair, she was told she would not be hired.
Ms. Jones sued the company for race discrimination, arguing that its hair policy was unfair toward black employees, but a federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected her claim. The court reasoned that discrimination based on race is forbidden because, it said, race is immutable, while hairstyles can be changed. It’s true that hairstyles involve some degree of personal choice, but that doesn’t give employers free rein to discriminate against workers who wear dreadlocks, a hairstyle said to be named by slave traders who viewed African hair texture as “dreadful.”
When it comes to hair, only black people and multiracial people of African descent are punished when they choose to wear styles consistent with their natural hair texture. It’s unthinkable that a court would uphold a policy that effectively required white workers to alter their hair texture through costly, time-consuming procedures involving harsh chemicals. Yet that’s exactly what the appeals court apparently expected Ms. Jones to do to keep her job. In May, the Supreme Court refused even to allow Ms. Jones to petition for review, letting the appeals court’s bad reasoning stand uncorrected.
I was luckier than Chastity Jones; I got the internship. But I never forgot the hurtful comment.
Years later, when I joined a large corporate law firm, I noticed that I was the only professional woman of color with natural hair. Most young lawyers at the firm removed their suit jackets when they arrived at work and didn’t put them on again until they left the building. I wore mine whenever I stepped away from my desk, afraid people would see me without it and assume I wasn’t a lawyer.
It’s frustrating that schools, employers and federal courts continue to judge us based not on what we can contribute but on who we are and how we wear our hair.
But there has been some progress. Last year, the Army lifted its ban on locs and twists; the Marine Corps did the same in 2015. That move is a powerful antidote to the notion that hairstyles involving untreated black hair are unnatural and unprofessional. After all, if service members can do their jobs while wearing locs, surely the rest of us can, as well.
Cover photo: Afropunk Festival, Brooklyn, 2016. Photo: Deidre Schoo for The New York Times