White norms win again thanks to a recent ruling that employers can force workers to choose between cutting off their dreadlocks or losing their jobs. The nappy, kinky, coily and wavy textures of Black hair are not considered unchangeable racial markers like skin tone, so three U.S. District Court of Appeals judges told the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission locs gotta go.
“This is a prime example of the backward nature of race and racism in this country,” says Tanisha Ford, Ph.D., a history and Africana Studies professor at the University of Delaware who specializes in fashion and body politics. “We use the logic of hair as a signifier of difference when it’s convenient, when it upholds White supremacy.”
In the short term, Chastity Jones, represented by the EEOC, lost her right to keep her job at a Mobile, Alabama, customer service company, working at a call center where customers would never see her. In the long term, this ruling moves well beyond a debate over a hairstyle and rests uncomfortably among the pantheon of ways in which Black bodies are policed by the state and controlled in contemporary American society and beyond.
One could argue, as Ford does, such policing extends to anyone who doesn’t conform with cisgender White men’s standards, including those with curvy or queer bodies, or those who hold their bodies according to the dictates of their religious convictions. But, as #TeacherBae in Atlanta shows, such policing often starts and stops with Black women.
“These dress codes are really in place to police the bodies of people they think will be a threat to workplace culture,” Ford says. “If you want to work in this culture, you need to change something about yourself.”
The same anti-Black policing methods that lead to the latest shooting deaths of unarmed Terence Crutcher, 40, in Tulsa; Keith Lamont Scott, 43, in Charlotte; and, earlier this summer, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, among many others is the same ethos behind this ruling determined not to see the disparate impact experienced by Blacks, some of the main wearers of dreadlocks. The judges’ operate from the same strain of thought that normalizes the killing of Trayvon Martin, gone too soon because of some misguided, criminal notion about what is normal behavior.
It’s cruelly funny the ruling should come at the same time White fashion designer Marc Jacobs has been accused of cultural appropriation for dressing his models in multi-colored locs at the close of New York Fashion Week, a move he felt entitled to make as a creative professional.
“It seems like there is a time, a place and a body that can celebrate Blackness, all of its cultural products and materials,” says Sevonna Brown, a New York-based sexual and reproductive rights activist. “But when that body is a Black one, it is demonized, and the dismissal of those cultural products or stylings is mandated. That is wild.”
The appeals court’s decision offers several scenarios to back their judgment but ultimately come off looking lazy in its conservative stance. They claim little support under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, describing locs as an “individual expression.” They suggested race may be a “social construct” rather than biological truth, which is technically true but not how it really plays out in the real world and is an awfully convenient stance given the current racial climate.
“The problem with the law in general is they aren’t willing to move beyond what’s already been legally justified,” says Minkah Makalani, Ph.D., associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “The real problem with the ruling is what becomes acceptable; a company would be to rule out a hairstyle that isn’t ‘the norm,’ which becomes a white hairstyle.”
The judges’ insistence that locs aren’t an immutable racial characteristic because white people can wear them isn’t logical, Makalani explains, because no one would make the reverse argument by telling, for example, a blond woman her straight hair is inappropriate so she has to get locs or cornrows to be considered acceptable in the workplace.
See how that doesn’t work? The only real principle here is establishing Whiteness as the default.
“These identifiers of Blackness that are denigrated and seen as necessarily inappropriate, as substandard are automatically in violation of normalcy standards,” Makalani says, “so it’s appropriate that Black people can be killed, policed or denied employment.”
While the EEOC evaluates its options, which could include appealing to the Supreme Court, African-Americans wearing natural styles are exposed. The truth is, locs, the freely growing, ungroomed version worn by Rastafarians, has always been about the state as a sign of “resistance and resilience,” Brown says. Evoking the Middle Passage, the EEOC complaint further explains: “During forced transportation of Africans across the ocean, their hair became matted with blood, feces, urine, sweat, tears and dirt. Upon observing them, some slave traders referred to the slaves hair as ‘dreadful,’ and “dreadlock” became a commonly used word to refer to locked hair that formed during slaves’ long trips across the ocean.”
While still a style that occurs by allowing Black hair do what it naturally does, today’s cultivated loc styles differ in that Blacks who wear them train their natural curl patterns to a certain direction through parting and palm rolling to achieve an authentic, natural look that allows for manageability and styling options that enhance confidence, much like other natural styles such as braids, twists and weaves. Coincidentally, the agency natural styles offers has lead to a renaissance in natural Black hairstyles and products, negatively affecting relaxer sales in a $2.7 billion market. As natural styles are a cultural expression, a cottage industry of natural hair care providers has grown up around this burgeoning appreciation for what is, indeed, a racial characteristic.
“This is also an issue of economic justice,” Brown says. “So many Black folks are wanting to advocate for themselves and only work in environments where they are fully accepted by their government name, sexual orientation, gender presentation, etc., and now to be concerned with our hair? This puts many in positions where they cannot feed their families or pay rent.”
The chilling effect of this ruling also affects workplace diversity, much discussed in the corporate world, especially the fast-growing technology sector where the EEOC has called for more diversity.
“What they’re essentially saying is, ‘We don’t want your culture here. Check your Blackness at the door,” says Ford, who defiantly adds: “We cannot let this matter die. We have to keep our eye on this matter just like we have to keep our eye on police who are murdering innocent Black citizens.”
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based journalist who teaches at Northwestern University.