Court decides I can be denied job for my locks

Here's some natural-hair irony: As Akousa Ali-Shabree prepared for the International Locks Conference in Philadelphia, this headline came across her Facebook timeline: "U.S. Court Rules Dreadlock Ban During Hiring Process is Legal."

"I was insulted," Ali-Shabree said of last week's decision that gives employers the OK to reject job candidates who choose to wear their hair in tight individual coils known as locks.

Sigh. Why is black people's hair still a corporate concern in 2016?

"We are honoring what naturally grows out of our head," said Ali-Shabree of Mount Airy, one of the conference's founders. "It's discrimination, plain and simple."

In 2010, Chastity Jones applied to work as a customer service representative at Catastrophe Management Systems in Mobile, Ala. According to court documents, Jones wore a blue business suit to the interview and her natural hair, which was twisted into tiny locks; it hadn't been straightened with chemicals or heat.

[Read more: Fear of hair politics stopped me from being an athlete - luckily, it didn't stop Gabby Douglas]

CMS's human resources manager, Jeannie Wilson, initially gave Jones the job, but a few days later rescinded the offer. CMS couldn't hire someone with dreadlocks, Wilson said. Her reasoning: "They tend to get messy."

On Jones' behalf, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in Alabama filed a lawsuit in district court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit - with federal jurisdiction in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia - sided Sept. 15 with CMS. Although hairstyles may be "culturally associated with race," the opinion read, they are not "immutable physical characteristics."

In other words, hair can be changed.

Herein lies the dilemma: Many - if not the majority - of African Americans have hair that does not grow out of their heads straight. To change that (and be more like a white person) often requires a process that is costly (at least $100 every six to eight weeks for relaxer alone) and painful (ever sit for an hour with burning chemicals on your head?). If we want to avoid the health risks that come with applying toxins to our scalps, we are left to wear our natural hair in three general ways: Afros; any kind of braids, from cornrows to box braids; and locks - all of which people have issues with.

Essentially, despite what the court decision implies, my locks are not the same as dying my hair pink.

"It's like telling a black person they have to bleach their skin, or their nose is too wide," said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, an African American lawyer who is the chancellor's professor at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.

Onwuachi-Willig said the case could be appealed at the Supreme Court level. But that is costly and time-consuming.

[Read more: Jenice Armstrong: Untangling the topic of black-women's hair]

"It's a horrible decision," said Willig, who also wears her hair in locks. "If you are an African American and don't want to be forced to wear the texture of that of a white person, you are really restricted."

The question of natural hairstyles in corporate settings goes back to 1981, when a federal District Court in New York ruled that it was well within the rights of American Airlines to ban airport agents from wearing braids to work - because the company banned braids for whites, too. Braids, it said, didn't comply with the company's dress code, which called for professional hairstyles.

This fundamental misunderstanding has helped fuel black people's hair complex. It's among the main reasons black women spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year buying fake hair and manipulating it. It has been drummed into our psyche that our natural hair is not acceptable.

Locks are particularly at issue because some people automatically think dreadlocks are dirty. Let me tell you, although locks can be worn messy (just like any other hairstyle, mind you), they also can be very neat. Mine, for instance, take tons of maintenance: They must be washed and conditioned, and each individual lock needs to be twisted at the scalp every two to three weeks, depending on how much I work out. Although the style is most closely associated with the Rastafari religion, it can be traced to African royalty. In fact, it wasn't until the Jamaican Slave Revolt in 1831 that the British called them dreadlocks.

The natural-hair movement gained steam in the mid-1990s, and with it, the first International Locks Conference, which was held in 1994 in Philadelphia. It quickly grew as a marketplace and safe space for women and men who wanted to learn to love their natural hair.

This weekend's two-day expo will continue the same tone of advocacy and wellness but will also feature discussions inspired by the court decision: a question-and-answer session with New York "lockstar" Thando Kafele, who is devoted to examining the wounds of racism.

As far as we've come - President Obama inaugurated the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture last weekend - our current climate seems to resist all forms of expression that are inherently black, mused Mark Anthony Neal, director of pop culture at Duke University's department of African American Studies.

[Read more: The Smithsonian's new Museum of African American History and Culture is an emotional rollercoaster through time]

Take the paraprofessional at an Atlanta elementary school who was forced to resign this month because she wore formfitting dresses with a voluptuous figure.

"If it was a white woman," Neal said, "there would be a meme of Jessica Rabbit, and people would smile and laugh and go on about their business."

And there is the impact of Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback who has been protesting the country's oppression of black people by police by not standing during the national anthem. With each week, his Afro gets bigger and bigger and, with it, criticism of his actions.

"We are in this moment where there is a lot of anxiety over losing the value of whiteness," Neal said. "So anything you can do to police darker people, whether it's immigration, law enforcement, or a company saying you have dreads so I [can] fire you is fair game."

If you still need convincing, there are always the innumerable examples of how black culture gets praise - when adopted by white people.

Kim Kardashian just released a coffee-table book of selfies that show her in cornrows and curvaceous dresses.

And Marc Jacobs' entire spring 2017 show featured a runway of white models with huge crowns of multicolored dreadlocks piled on their heads. So pretty, right?

"They don't have a problem with putting a handful of blacks on a pedestal," Neal said, referring to entertainers and athletes who stand for the national anthem. "That is totally separate and distinct to how they feel about black humanity."

The 22nd annual International Locks Conference, noon to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Universal Audenried Charter High School, 3301 Tasker St. .

ewellington@phillynews.com

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@ewellingtonphl