The Perilous Politics of Hair

How my box braids kept me out of a waitressing job in a rapidly gentrifying America. Also on TheRoot.com, another writer explains why he decided, after 13 years, to cut off his locks.

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braids

A strange and sad thing happened to me on my job search this year. I missed out on an opportunity not because of my skills, but because of my hair. I was looking for a little extra money for college this past February, so I applied for a job at my old place of employment, Ruby Tuesday. I had worked there last year as a server, and the restaurant in downtown DC was undergoing a facelift—along with the surrounding Chinatown neighborhood – so I thought it might be fun to return there.

 

Grace Salvant with her braids.

When I sat down to have an interview with the general manager, he seemed enthusiastic to have me come back as he discussed all the changes that the restaurant was going through. One of those "changes" surprised, confused and angered me: In order to get hired there, I was told, I would have to remove my braids from my hair.

At the time, I wore multiple braids in my hair also known as "box braids" or "micros." The manager told me that the new policy with respect to hairstyles reflected the company position nationwide. No twists or dreads were acceptable either. A year earlier I had worn braids as a Ruby Tuesday employee. Now, after the restaurant had undergone an "upgrade," my braided hair style was no longer acceptable?

I was angry and sad all at the same time. If the company had deemed braids, dreads and twists "unacceptable," what were they saying about my culture?

I called the corporate office to see if it was true, and, sure enough, the person on the other end of the phone told me that it wasn't a "race thing," but rather an "image" thing. At that point I was thinking, "these people must think I am a fool."

The next day, I contacted Gregory Carr, a professor of African American Studies at Howard University, where I am a sophomore. He said that, without a doubt, the policy was discriminatory and advised me to seek legal counsel.

I contacted a lawyer and started a petition against the policy. Over the course of two days, more than 500 students, faculty and staff at Howard signed it. Various students told me that they made phone calls to the corporate office to protest the policy.

My cause drew some interest from the media. In an interview with National Newspaper Publishers Association Editor-in-Chief Hazel Trice Edney, a spokesperson for Ruby Tuesday, in a tape-recorded interview in late February, defended the policy, then called the reporter back to say it was a "misinterpretation" by the local management.