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When designer Marc Jacobs faced public criticism for using faux dreadlocks on mostly white models for New York Fashion Week recently, his curt response (which he has since apologized for) showed he didn’t really get what might have rankled people to begin with.
But examples — of why appropriating and celebrating traditionally black hairstyles could be seen as offensive in the face of ongoing natural-hair discrimination — just keep on coming. In August, for example, we told you of Rachel Sakabo, who says she was fired from her job as a St. Regis hotel concierge in New York City because of her dreadlocks.
Then, on Sept. 15, the very same day that the Marc Jacobs models walked the runway, an appeals court upheld an Alabama insurance company’s right to ban a woman from wearing dreadlocks at work. This was despite the racial and cultural implications as argued on behalf of the employee by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
And now we have the story of Savion J. Wright. He’s an Austin, Texas-based musician and 2014 American Idol contestant who told about his unsettling job-interview experience in a Saturday Facebook post, since shared more than 8,200 times.
“I went to a job interview. It went extremely well. I dressed in a nice black suit and tie,” his post begins. “The lady who interviewed me tells me that she is ‘amazed by my great communication, wisdom, and natural leadership abilities.’ But then she looks up at my hair and says, ‘… But would you mind cutting your hair? We would like our partners to be professional, and I don’t think your look would fly well. I mean, it looks like you have a lot of years in there. So, just consider it.’ I was FLOORED. I’ve been growing my hair for 9 years, lady, so no! I’m an artist, it’s a part of me, a part of my identity and it stays on point!”
Wright goes on to explain that the interview was not for a “professional” job, that his hair was “neatly done” and “not posing a security hazard to anyone,” and points out the racist overtones of his experience, concluding, “Perhaps I’m being too critical, but it sounds like one more excuse to keep us from soaring.”
The 12,000-plus reactions to his post range are overflowing with supporters, with one woman noting, “I couldn’t agree more! I think it’s just another attempt to attack our identity. So you can’t get a job bc of your hair then you have to conform to their standards … for what?? They’re even attacking our young babies in the school saying their braids & fros are against dress code!” She is correct, as stories about school dress codes focusing on dreadlocks and braids occur with regularity, such as with the recent controversy about a Kentucky high school’s anti-natural-hair policy for students.
A Facebook critic, though, lashes out at Wright by telling him to “grow up,” prompting another commenter to leap to Wright’s defense and claiming that his brother “was murdered by white cops who then got away with it.” (Wright’s brother Alfred was indeed found dead under mysterious circumstances in Jasper, Texas, back in 2014.)
The issue of appearance and employment, though, is an ongoing quagmire, which typically has employers in the right, even at the interview stage. That’s something Paula Brantner of the organization Workplace Fairness told Yahoo Beauty recently, for a story about a Toronto woman who opted to skip an interview at the Body Shop after she was instructed to show up wearing “a full face of makeup.”
She added that, while it may be difficult to understand how such rules are acceptable, “Throughout the U.S., we have employment-at-will, meaning a company can hire and fire for any reason, as long as it’s not illegal. So the question is, what would make it illegal?” Obvious racism and discrimination based on sexual orientation are examples, Brantner explained, as is clear gender bias — but proving it effectively in a court of law could be difficult.
For now, in the land of Facebook judgment, it seems that Wright may have won. “Keep your gorgeous hair,” wrote one of a growing swell of supporters, “and those years of wisdom that lay within it.”