• Mon. Dec 5th, 2022

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What Ketanji Brown Jackson’s sisterlocks means to Black women – The Washington Post

Since Ketanji Brown Jackson was nominated to become the first Black woman to join the Supreme Court, her judicial opinions, Harvard law degree and, while fielding questions from senators over two days, patient demeanor, have all been on display.

Center stage too has been the tightly coiled sisterlocks that fall past Jackson’s shoulders.

It is a low-maintenance choice for a busy professional. But for many Black women it’s also revolutionary.

“It was a beautiful sight,” says Kameelah Pointer, a 27-year-old law student at Northwestern University, who keeps her short natural hair wrapped in headscarves. “To walk with such poise, such grace, with sisterlocks. … She didn’t let the stereotypes of what locking your hair meant prevent her from being her best self.”

Jackson is “redefining the standards of professionalism,” says Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business who studies the effects of hair discrimination on Black women. “I’m in awe.”

It is not clear when Jackson decided to lock her hair. In a picture of her from high school, Jackson appears to be wearing her hair straight with bumped ends. In another early photo, she appears to be in a courtroom, dressed in a navy suit, her hair in a neat bob as she raises her hand to take an oath. The sisterlocks she later adopted were trademarked almost 30 years ago, cost hundreds of dollars and take hours, sometimes days, to install.

“Her locks are beautiful,” says stylist Charlotte Van Horn, who has shops in Woodbridge, Va., and Panama. “They’re nice and full, and they’re very neat. They look very uniform.”

Post Reports: Getting to know Ketanji Brown Jackson

Van Horn says her social media lit up with “buzz and pride” as friends with sisterlocks posted photos of Jackson’s tresses. They are a commitment, she says, with some people paying as much $2,500 to start the process and can take up to 41 hours to install. They’re particularly popular, she says, with “the 40-year-old woman who … is not worried about going to her corporate job or whatever with sisterlocks.”

The cultural politics surrounding Black women’s natural hair, from loose curls to kinky coils, stretch back hundreds of years. In the 1700s, Louisiana’s governor signed what was known as the tignon law requiring Black women to wrap their heads in scarves so they could be more easily identified as enslaved people. Later chemical relaxers helped women chemically straighten their hair. Angela Davis’s thick, full Afro helped defined a period of Black pride.

Natural hairstyles have recently enjoyed a renaissance, seen as less of a political statement than a matter of choice. But it remains a sensitive issue in some circles.

It was a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s close-cropped hair, after all, that sent Will Smith onto the Oscars stage last month to slap comedian Chris Rock on live television. The target of Smith’s ire, Rock, produced a 2009 documentary, “Good Hair,” in which he explores the complexities of hair and hair extensions to the Black community.

And in executive suites, the standards have been slower to evolve as Black women worried that they would be deemed less professional if they didn’t straighten their hair.

Jackson, who was confirmed Thursday by the Senate in a 53 to 47 vote, is not the first prominent Black woman to wear a natural hairstyle. The former first lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, wife of Bill de Blasio, wears long dreadlocks. Viola Davis is known for sporting a voluminous Afro on the red carpet.

For years, Rep. Ayanna Pressley was known for her long Senegalese twists. The look became a part of her identity and political brand, she has said, serving as an inspiration to young women of color across the country — even sparking T-shirts that read, “My Congresswoman Wears Braids. When in 2020, Pressley announced that she has alopecia, an autoimmune condition that can cause hair loss, unveiling a bald head, she worried that it would be seen as a “cultural betrayal.”

Jackson may be a turning point for Black women, said the Massachusetts Democrat. “That sisterlock representation makes the point that we belong everywhere,” Pressley said in an interview with Washington Post Live last week. “And we belong with our Afros, with our sisterlocks, with our braids, with our bald heads.”

The journey to natural hair was bumpy for Pointer.

In second grade, she proudly wore her finger coils, a natural do with curly twists. She thought they looked gorgeous. But her classmates thought differently. The put-downs were so merciless that she got her first “kiddie perm,” but the chemical relaxer made her hair fall out.

Since high school, she’s worn a variety of short natural hairstyles. She’s sponged it, twisted it. In college she would comb and pick it out. As a young Senate staffer, she experimented with Bantu knots. The styles set her free, she said. “I fell in love with me and my natural hair, and I began to feel beautiful.”

“I don’t know Judge Jackson and what she’s gone through. But if she did have a trauma related to her hair then bless her because she’s so confident now,” says Pointer.

Three days before Jackson’s confirmation hearings began last month, the House passed the CROWN Act, which would prohibit discrimination “based on the individual’s hair texture or hairstyle, if that hair texture or that hairstyle is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin.” The bill passed with overwhelming support from Democrats and some Republicans.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) faced a backlash from some supporters of the legislation, after calling it “the bad hair bill.” “Those comments are triggering and they are racist, and have negative connotations,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who introduced the bill, said of Boebert’s comments. Boebert’s spokesman Benjamin Stout said the congresswoman meant to call it the “bad, hair bill.”

How Ketanji Brown Jackson found a path between confrontation and compromise

Hope Goins, 42, majority staff director for the House Committee on Homeland Security, has worn her hair in short natural (sometimes blond) coils for six years. “Sometimes people are unprofessional with me. They want to touch my hair and they want to tell me it’s cool or something, or pay more attention to my hair than what I have to say,” she said.

Usually they know better than to actually touch it, she says. But sometimes they point or come close. “How did it get that way?” they ask. “It’s very annoying,” said Goins.

She knows other Black women envy her ability to walk through Capitol Hill, a place steeped in tradition, with her natural hair. But she worries, too.

At an after-hours work event recently, a colleague greeted her by saying: “There’s Hope with the cool hair.” Was it an innocuous compliment? Or were they reacting to seeing something foreign? She would rather talk about homeland security policy, Goins says, and not have to worry how she is perceived.

“I love Judge Jackson’s hair. It is beautiful,” she says, “but honestly, it was [Jackson’s] brilliance that captivated me.”

Maude Okrah, 34, felt pressure to wear her hair straight while working as a marketing executive at a large energy company. “Wearing it in a Eurocentric way is a way to look the part of a professional,” she says.

She sometimes reverts to a protective style like braids, but gets the most positive feedback when her hair is straight. Colleagues say “I like your hair straight. Why did you change your hair? Is that your real hair? It spoke to the lack of diversity I found myself surrounded by in corporate America settings,” says Okrah, who left her job in the energy sector to form Black Beauty Roster, which connects hair and makeup stylists with entertainment companies whose talent has textured hair.

It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. Research shows that Black women with textured hair are often considered less professional.

For Jackson, path to the Supreme Court is paved with smiles and small talk

In a 2017 “good hair” experiment conducted by the Perception Institute, people were asked to look at computer-generated images of Black female candidates with smooth or textured hair, and then associate them with positive or negative words. People across racial lines deemed the Black woman with straight hair as more “polished, refined and respectable” and “more strongly recommended” them for an interview, the study found.

The type of discrimination persists, Wendy Greene, who teaches anti-discrimination law at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, wrote in an email. But Jackson’s hair “communicates that Black women’s professional success and wearing natural hairstyles need not be mutually exclusive,” she says. “It also communicates to broader society that Black women’s natural hairstyles like locs, braids, Afros, and twists, are not unprofessional, bear no correlation to Black women’s competencies, and should no longer serve as a barrier to their entering or advancing in any profession.”

This argument has also played out in the courts. In 2010, Chastity Jones was hired as a customer service representative for an insurance claims company in Mobile, Ala. But Jones said an HR manager told her to cut her dreadlocks because “they tend to get messy.” When she refused, the job offer was rescinded. Jones sued and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed to argue her case.

“Black hair is Black hair, whether it’s nappy, straight, curly or dreaded up,” said Jones, 46, who now works as a scheduler in a neurologist’s office. “I love my Black hair. And it was never a thought for me to cut it off to get a job. Never.”

The lawsuit made its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. At the time, it was composed of six men, three women, and no Black women.

The next time it’s asked to weigh in on issues of kinky coils, Bantu knots, twist-outs and dreads, the court may have an in-house expert.

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