It’s been one heck of a week for dreadlocks, and all who love and wear the style. Thursday, fashion designer Marc Jacobs fought criticism on social media for having white models rock colorful faux locs in his NYFW Spring ‘17 show. Then Friday, the 11th U.S. Appeals Court caught flack for ruling that employers can now legally ban employees from wearing locs.
These instances aren’t the first of their kind. Debates spur over who can wear dreadlocks, and whether they and other natural hairstyles are professional. In recently years, women have been fired for wearing them. The U.S. Army has a ban against them. A little girl was expelled for wearing her locs. A natural hair expo even canceled a blogger’s appearance due to locs.
White Women Wearing Locs: Appropriation or Creative Expression?
Marc Jacobs, in a now-deleted Instagram post, argues that his display of majority white models donning brightly-hued, freer-formed faux locs is not cultural appropriation. Why? Because “women of color [straighten] their hair”. He neglects the fact many black women straighten their hair as an act of assimilation to fit Eurocentric beauty standards. We avoid the ridicule or discrimination of embracing textured tresses.
Black women and girls who wear natural styles face harsh consequences. We lose job offers, as is the case of Chastity Jones. We can’t appropriate straight styles because to do so would be to separate them from their “originators”. Instead, when Jacobs cites non-black inspirations for an obviously Afrocentric ‘do, he erases its connection to an entire group. It’s no secret black models experience underrepresentation in the fashion industry. White models wearing locs further serves to keep us away.
Then there’s the issue with the U.S. federal appeals court.
Dreadlocks Legally Banned from the Workplace
Like appropriation, racial discrimination aims to erase an entire people from certain spaces. In the suit against Catastrophe Management Solutions, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that “dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” Thus, banning the style is race-based discrimination.
A black women named Chastity Jones, who was getting ready to start a job with Catastrophe Management Solutions in Mobile, Alabama, in 2010, claimed that the company discriminated against her because of her locs. Jones said that a white human resources manager told her that her locs were against company policy since they “tend to get messy.” After Jones refused to change her hairstyle, she claims her offer was withdrawn, and she complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The commission filed a lawsuit on Jones’ behalf in 2013, stating that withdrawing her contract based on her hairstyle is racial discrimination because “dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” The EEOC argued that race is a social construct not solely defined by traits that can’t be changed. It also asserted that the “hairstyle can be a determinant of racial identity.”
However, according to Atlanta Black Star, “While federal law prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of immutable traits like race or national origin, these traits do not encompass cultural hairstyles like dreads.”
Using this logic, Judge Adalberto Jordan dismissed the discrimination case brought by the EEOC on behalf of Chastity Jones. Then, in a written statement Judge Jordan explains,
“We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that, in the last several decades, there have been some calls for courts to interpret Title VII more expansively by eliminating the biological conception of ‘race’ and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race.”
A spokeswoman for the EEOC told the Wall Street Journal after the ruling that they believe the court made the wrong decision.
“We believe the court was incorrect when it held that the employer’s actions could not be proven to be race discrimination,” she said. “ We are reviewing our options.”
Despite the court’s ruling, black men and women are still being reprimanded in workplaces and classrooms across the country (and world) for wearing hairstyles unique to their culture.
Society, often times, views what’s acceptable for black hair through a white lens so braids, locs and afros can be deemed “unkempt.”