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.
The restaurant later announced that they had "reversed" the policy, but I do not think that is enough. I would still like to see the restaurant address the issue nationwide, with a clarification of the policy and a statement that the direction adopted by the Ruby Tuesday where I had my encounter was wrong.
My hair is 100 percent natural, never touched by a relaxer or texture enhancers. Occasionally, I will hot comb my hair, but I do not think that it is fair that we, as African Americans, should be forced to "conform" to popular society.
From D.C. to Harlem, neighborbood gentrification is replacing black-owned mom and pop stores with national chains, stripping black neighborhoods of their unique character and culture. Has the process of "upgrading" neighborhoods moved to erasing personal expressions of black character and culture as well?
I, for one, will do everything in my power to keep that from happening.
Grace Salvant is a public relations student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.