When US Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week for her confirmation hearings, her legal rulings, education, life story, and overall qualifications will be put on full display.
But for me and other Black Americans, the moment will mean a little more, and not just because Jackson is the first Black woman to be nominated to the nation’s highest court. Something else will be featured prominently during Jackson’s high-profile moment on Capitol Hill: her sisterlocks. The nominee to be the next high court justice has natural hair.
Black hair in its natural state isn’t just an immutable feature of people of the African diaspora. It is a complex part of our identity, culture, and history — a symbol of pride, of resistance, of empowerment, and sometimes even political power. And because beauty and professional standards are centered in whiteness, it is also the subject of derision, ridicule, and discrimination.
That dynamic has been particularly evident in workplaces and schools. The constant reinforcement of the notion that kinky, coily tresses cannot possibly be acceptable, let alone beautiful, in the Eurocentric world has caused generations of Black people to turn to chemical relaxers. Even though the dangerous mix of chemicals burns, scars, and damages our hair and scalps, it seemed worth it to get that straight, silky look of societal acceptance. I stopped relaxing my own hair only about a decade ago, after more than 25 years of using what Chris Rock comically referred to as “creamy crack.”
But the tide has turned as more Black people like me have embraced our natural hair textures in all aspects of life, including classrooms and boardrooms. But the law hasn’t caught up. That needs to change.
“Being told that the way you wear your hair is unacceptable affects your dignity,” said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University School of Law. “We wouldn’t ask someone to lighten their skin color to get a job. We wouldn’t ask them to get a nose job if the person had a broad nose.”
The problem with enforcing existing law is the difficulty of proving racially motivated intent, as well as a basic lack of understanding about Black hair, said Onwuachi-Willig, who knows from firsthand experience. As a recent law school graduate, she began wearing her hair in sisterlocks, a natural style where the hair is coiled into tiny, ropelike strands, as Jackson wears. Onwuachi-Willig wanted a style that would be easy to maintain as well as healthy for her hair, since overmanipulating Black hair can lead to dryness and breakage.
Early in her career, a supervisor made derogatory comments about Onwuachi-Willig’s appearance to another employee, and word got back to her. The supervisor was reprimanded, but a seed was planted.
Onwuachi-Willig would go on to author a seminal Georgetown Law Journal article that would serve as a basis for changing employment discrimination policies to prohibit the very conduct she and other Black Americans have faced for generations.
It’s not just Black women who are harmed. Recall Andrew Johnson, a high school wrestler in New Jersey, who was given 90 seconds before a match to decide to either cut the long dreadlocks he’d grown since middle school or forfeit the match. The video of him having several inches of his hair snipped went viral — and caused the referee who demanded Johnson make such a choice to be suspended from officiating for two years.
Now the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), which explicitly includes hair in racial nondiscrimination protections, has passed in more than a dozen states, and Massachusetts could be next. It was spearheaded after Mystic Valley Regional Charter School punished twins Deanna and Mya Cook because they wore braided extensions, a policy the state attorney general’s office deemed discriminatory.
Onwuachi-Willig, one of the drafters of the legislation’s language, said it explicitly includes the use of synthetic hair — commonly used in box braids to protect natural hair while extending the life of the hairstyle — in the definition of natural hair. These nuances are important and necessary. Finally, after a long push, the bill is set for a vote this week.
A federal version of the bill just passed on Capitol Hill, even though it was slurred by a Republican member as the “poor hair bill.” But it still has a tough road in the Senate.
Lawmakers must press on. I made a point to stop straightening my hair when I began appearing as a journalist on television, because it’s important for America to see me, coils and all. Next week, America will witness Jackson’s brilliant legal mind, topped in sisterlocks. It’s past time for federal and state lawmakers to have our backs.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.