After countless months of deliberation and five years of being a “loose natural” (i.e. one whose natural hair has been left in its loose state, free of permanent styling or chemical manipulation), I am finally transitioning into locs via permanent loc extensions.
Prior to writing this, I was asked by another CASSIUS editor if this is a decision I had been fearful of due to societal confines. Not quite. At this stage in my life, I regard my hair as my liberty and will do with it what I damn-well please (which is quite the gratifying form of resistance in this white, white world, if you ask me). But do I understand the weight of the question? Do I get why this would even be a matter to raise?
Because it wasn’t long ago that a Tallahassee teen was told by high school faculty her afro needed to be “fixed”. And it wasn’t too long ago that two twin sisters were kicked off their sports team, barred from prom, and subjected to hours of detention for refusing to remove their braid extensions. In January, after swelling protest in 2014, the U.S. Army finally decided to permit locs to be worn, but only if they were “uniform,” “evenly spaced,” and didn’t exceed a particular width. As reports show, there’s an increasing amount of institutions implementing policies against locs, braids, twists—you name it—and affecting the lives of Black women on a pervasive level.
In 2016, after an Alabama Black woman refused to cut off her locs under the conditions of the insurance company at which she was employed, a federal appeals court deemed discrimination against traditionally Black hairstyles acceptable. Though the EEOC aptly argued the “prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent,” the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree.
“We recognize that the distinction between immutable and mutable characteristics of race can sometimes be a fine (and difficult) one, but it is a line that courts have drawn,” U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote in a ruling. “So, for example, discrimination on the basis of black hair texture (an immutable characteristic) is prohibited by Title VII, while adverse action on the basis of black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not.”
Most recently, Berkeley Law professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig—a distinguished employment discrimination and family law scholar who’s done years of grooming code policy research—responded to the ruling, stating:
“This decision portends continued difficulty for Black women who want to wear natural hairstyles in the workplace—and, by extension, schools—because it set forth faulty reasoning that other courts will likely rely on. The court actually asserts: ‘It may be that today ‘race’ is recognized as a ‘social construct’ … But our possible current reality does not tell us what the country’s collective zeitgeist was when Congress enacted Title VII half a century ago.’ It’s a rather astounding statement because it rejects science, which makes it clear that race is a social construct.”
Alongside law school professors Trina Jones (Duke), Kimberly Norwood (Washington University-St. Louis), and Wendy Greene (Cumberland), Onwuachi-Willig is fighting against such injustice in an effort to rid of discriminatory policies once and for all. Together, the scholars co-drafted letters for which they’ve received signatures from over 120 scholars overseas and in the U.S. The letters were sent to the department of education and school board president for each state.
“The reasons most commonly provided [for such discrimination] are that such hairstyles are faddish, extreme, distracting, and unprofessional,” says Onwuachi-Willig. “What’s troubling is that banning these hairstyles essentially tells Black girls and women—nearly all of whom have tightly coiled hair or coiled hair that grows into an Afro—that the hair they were born with is faddish, extreme, distracting, and unprofessional. It sets up a standard that appears neutral in its language but is actually racially discriminatory.”
Though I’m a Black woman at a Black company, which grants me the space to be Black (and by Black, I mean Black AF), the urgency of this topic is not lost on me. I can’t imagine interviewing for a job for which I was fully competent, only to be rejected because of how I choose to style my hair. I should note that, prior to working in media full-time, I was employed at a popular retail company (which will not be named because that’s neither here nor there) whose hiring department sought free expression in its applicants. Individualism need apply. But the reality is: the rest of this nation’s workforce wants to sterilize the f*ck out of Black women’s self-expression and freedom, which is why what Onwuachi-Willig is doing is so important.
And I’m grateful. Grateful there are Black women taking this on for other Black women. Grateful there are folks, like me, shooting a middle finger to the cultural watch guards who police Black women—and in a society that blatantly makes bank off our culture while deliberately erasing our names, no less. I can only hope that, one day, this fight won’t be necessary. Working at a company that embraces Black identity? Priceless.
How great would it be if the rest of America was the same?