[Note: On September 15, 2016, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision ruling that it is legal for employers to reject job applicants because of their hairstyles. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed the case on behalf of Chastity Jones, after Catastrophe Management Solutions rescinded her job offer because of her dreadlocks—because, as an HR manager explained, “[T]hey tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” According to NBC News, the court’s logic was that “hairstyles, while ‘culturally associated with race,’ are not ‘immutable physical characteristics.’”
The author of this piece wrote it prior to the court’s decision.]
About two months ago I sat in a salon chair, with my hair hanging past my ears, newly released from the universal object of women’s entrapment, the hair-tie. On that day I was going to fulfill a lifelong goal—I was going to express a side of myself that was truly symbolic of all of myself. I sat in the natural-hair salon to finally lock my hair. My stomach was turning, hoping that the finished product would be something I could get used to.
I sent my mom an excited text, “I’m doingggg it, I’m locking my hair!” I didn’t hear from her for another hour. When she responded, it was without exclamation marks or hyperbolic joy. She advised me to think about timing and getting a job. She warned that, unfortunately, it mattered to employers. I rolled my eyes and explained that I was smart enough to get hired anyway. She insisted: the choice to lock my hair, a step of self- and identity-exploration, would narrow my range of options in the workforce. The interlacing of large strands of my hair with one another would require me to think about alternative interview strategies and ultimately decide which employers were confident in my abilities. I was advised to wait for a number of reasons, and so I did. The thought process and rationale surrounding that decision is what bothers me most, and is haunting for the simple fact that I succumbed to it.
Black hair politics has long been an important component of black identity, and when the time came for me to challenge the white standard of beauty, I thought I’d be ready. To my surprise, I was not—for three reasons.
1. My options to work inside the system, whether politically or legally, would be narrowed. Simply put, there has not been enough exposure to black aesthetics in government or the law to afford me the choice of locking my hair. When I challenged my mother and asked if this meant that I also shouldn’t wear my hair natural, she shook her head, squinched her eyes, and said, “No!” I couldn’t understand the difference in acceptability between having locs and natural hair. When I asked her to explain, her words fell short as she murmured, “It’s just the way it is, baby.”
2. I decided that I was not betraying my heart and identity by waiting to get locs. I am a black woman, and so naturally my hair is intertwined with my mood, my expression, and my growth. When I first debated taking out my two-strand twists (pre-loc stage) after going to the salon, I talked with my boyfriend, my friends, and my mentors. Locking my hair was a professional decision. I asked questions about whether they thought I could pull the look off, and if I would be okay in interviews. We tussled with these ideas, but at the core of each conversation I was looking for reassurance that this would not make me a “sell-out,” or make it seem like I was ashamed of who and what I am. In the end, I concluded that my decision and my identity could coexist. Not to mention that black women have sacrificed a lot more than a hairdo to find work.
3. I was convinced that if I wanted to be a part of fixing the system, my role was to be in the system and wreak havoc there. I have been afforded privileged opportunities: I had great schooling, am politically well-versed, and have a supportive family and financial stability. My privilege also extends to the way I look. Because of my light complexion, narrow nose, and petite figure, I have the ability to align with an image of beauty that sits well with white professionals. Of course, I do not look white, but I do not have “traditional” black features. As uncomfortable as I am saying this, I know it’s the truth, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge it here.
The idea is that with this privilege and my education, I can position myself in systemic places of power to then turn the system on its head—challenge the legislation they pass, the rhetoric they use, the people they appoint, and the oppression they allow. And then, only then, ONCE I HAVE EMERGED VICTORIOUS, I can lock the hair that is mine. Then I will not be laden with the social stigma of having locs, because I will have proven my credibility to my white peers. This would circumvent the urge to judge my ability by their level of comfort with my hairdo.
With hair neatly kept, I would swing my long locs across the floors of Congress and have my cake and eat it too.
THE GAG IS: I got hired with two braids and a head-wrap on my head—one of the blackest aesthetics. Go figure.
The author of this piece is a black woman, a public servant, and a poet.