I stood on a train behind a tall Black man with gorgeous, slender locs longer than the hem of his Wall Street-quality charcoal suit jacket. A fifteen-year-old memory struck me.
I was attending a workshop on job interview strategies in a large, bright community space in the newest dorm in the middle of the Goucher College campus. Perhaps the workshop was ending, because we were standing around the heavy, blocky, grey-upholstered chairs and couches, chatting.
An upperclassman, a slender Black man I strongly respected but whose name I have long since forgotten, asked me a question. I don’t know why he asked me. I suppose the question was weighing heavily on his mind and I was there. It would be many years before this became a conscious phenomenon for me, to intentionally “be there” for people wrestling with powerful personal questions, but it’s something I’ve always had an instinct for.
“Do you think I can go to a job interview with dreads?” He had ruler-straight, pencil-slim locs falling to his strong jawline on both sides. “Do you think that’s acceptable business attire?”
Without a thought, I said, “Of course you can!” I love the look of nicely tended dreads on a Black man. I didn’t wonder then, as I do now, whether it was genuine appreciation or fetishization of the exotic. I had never had Black classmates, let alone Black friends, before I went to college.
Perhaps I saw hesitation or skepticism on his face, because I felt suddenly uncertain that this was, in fact, the right answer. I began to backpedal, my chest tightening with the suspicion that I had overstepped, or misspoken, or offended.
“I mean, you want to look neat and professional. I guess not just any dreads would do, but yours are really nice.” In fact, you’re damned hot, I was thinking, but at least I knew that was not appropriate in this conversation.
I have a vague memory of trying to describe what I meant by “neat and professional” locs: tidy, well-kept, not too long, not in hanging in your face….
I didn’t understand the complicated web of microaggressions that my babbling was hurling at him, but I did eventually realize that I had said too much. I’ve learned, in the years since Ferguson, that these qualifiers – “so long as your locs are…” – reflect standards set and enforced by a culture of white supremacy.
American standards of beauty and acceptability all lead towards “as much like northern European white people as possible,” pressing women to lighten their skin and straighten their hair, encouraging men to keep their hair short and conform to dark, monochrome suit-and-tie attire. These standards of fashion reflect centuries of court attire in England, France, Germany and Scandanavia, adopted over time by the monarchies of Spain and Russia, spreading to the elite of the American Colonies, and becoming increasingly conservative in their use of color and pattern.
As the European colonial powers spread throughout the world – India, Africa, China, Australia, South America – they encountered a variety of cultures where color, pattern, embellishment, long hair, piercing, tattooing, face and body painting and more were prevalent. Everywhere they went, English, French and Spanish colonizers insisted on “taming” these local traditions. Indigenous people who wanted to gain respect or even just basic rights had to conform to European colonial standards of beauty and professionalism. These continue to this day to be the standards by which we judge “professionalism” in America, Europe and even much of the rest of the world. In those videos of businessmen cramming into the Tokyo subway, they all wear dark suits and ties.
In fact, the marginalization of dreadlocks goes back much farther than that. We get the word “barbarian” from the Ancient Greek βάρβαρος (barbaros), apparently because they thought the language of Anatolia (present-day Turkey) sounded like a whole lot of “bar bar” to them. Greeks used the word to mean Middle Eastern people, while in the Roman Empire it became synonymous with all the “unruly” peoples of northern and eastern Europe and northern Africa. (The word persists in English today when we refer to the Amazigh people of North Africa as “Berbers.”) In Greek and Roman descriptions of the “barbarians at the gate,” rabidly violent men with matted hair (dreadlocks) are the common trope. Such depictions of barbarians persist in popular media narratives today.
When we say, then, that dreadlocks are “unprofessional,” our subtext is that we are looking at an uncultured, untrustworthy barbarian, the kind of enemy against whom we bar the city gates at night. When we say “professional-looking dreadlocks,” we’re saying, “Rein it in to something we’d trust around our women and children.”
There’s his answer, I thought that morning on the train. That man, with his locs and his charcoal suit and his tan wingtip shoes, looks ten times more professional than I ever have!
And my next thought was, Wow. There are some powerful white supremacist cultural assumptions behind that thought. I consider such second-guessing to be progress.
Certainly the federal court system, laden with centuries of racism and white supremacy, considers locs to be unfit for modern life. As recently as last July, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that it was not a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for Catastrophe Management Solutions to rescind their job offer to Chasity Jones because locs “tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.”
It was not until last July that the U.S. Army finally allowed servicewomen to wear dreadlocks, but only if they are “relatively small, uniform, neat, and tied off inconspicuously.” In other words, locs that appeal to white standards of beauty and professionalism. It’s an imcremental change, for sure, but it’s more than just an improvement in diversity. It means that Black women can now forego the enormous financial and time burdens of straightening and styling their hair to conform to unrealistic standards of professionalism, not to mention the emotional burdens.
“When someone tells us there’s nothing you can do to look professional if you have locks, it’s kind of a confidence hit,” [said natural hair advocate Nikky Nwamokobia].
So, acknowledging that it is centuries too late….
I apologize for not remembering your name. Maybe you won’t know mine, either, at the reunion next year.
I apologize for my microaggressions against you. Ignorance is no excuse.
I apologize for blindly reinforcing white standards of beauty and professionalism, even when my gut was telling me to shut up.
I commit to doing better.