When President Joe Biden announced his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be America’s next Supreme Court justice — delivering on a campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the nation’s highest court — he explained that the government and our courts “haven’t looked like America.” As Jackson begins her confirmation hearings Monday, she is already changing the appearance of justice in the country.
While dreadlocks might be on trend, that doesn’t mean they’re not still stigmatized.
After Jackson’s selection, many noted her impressive record as the first public defender to be nominated to the Supreme Court. And having served as a District Court judge before being appointed as an appellate judge last year, Jackson, 51, has standout qualifications even as some Republicans try to dismiss her as an affirmative action pick. But it’s not only her record that’s making an impact.
As Jackson’s image circulates, some observers, most notably other Black women, have called attention to something that might at first seem superficial: her hairstyling. She looks especially familiar to those of us, women and men alike, who belong to what some call the “natural hair community.” And Jackson’s hair doesn’t stand out because of its texture alone; the locked style makes a particularly strong statement.
While hair seems trivial and we may be reluctant to add to the scrutiny women endure over their appearances, the reality is that women and men have both been expected to follow norms about dress and grooming and to make strategic choices about outfits, accessories and hair color.
These choices are revealing, even — or especially — within the confines of a courtroom. For example, despite the justices’ ubiquitous black robes, we see stiff collars and ties peeking through. We see trousers, hemlines, dress shoes and heels. And no one can forget the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s iconic collection of collars and scrunchies.
This isn’t true only in American courtrooms. The 17th century tradition of judges’ and lawyers’ donning white horsehair wigs in the U.K. and some former colonies, for instance, has been partly preserved. It is welcomed by some as a uniform that epitomizes the idea that justice is blind, while others link the practice to antiquated customs ill-suited to modern society, not to mention warmer climates. Either way, these issues raise questions about how we think servants of the court ought to present themselves.
The significance of appearance isn’t just about styling choices. It’s about identity, life experience and perspective. We might see this as a subtle reflection of wider criminal justice reform tackling who serves as law enforcers and even who gets selected as jurors. What’s considered uniform shifts as we broaden our understanding of who belongs in these institutional spaces and what they bring with them when they enter. Inclusion and shared purpose don’t require the denial of social difference.
That’s an important message that a hairstyle can help deliver, particularly since Black people’s hair has a long history of public interest and has been both a subject of oppression and a symbol of liberation. When enslaved women and men were required to cover their hair to further distinguish them from the white population, they did so with scarves and hats that became vehicles for self-expression. In other words, laws were passed to simultaneously differentiate groups and create a uniform look, but these efforts were often upended by the creativity of Black people.
The history of dreadlocks, in particular, communicates this legacy. The name dates to British colonists’ distaste for the matted hair of Kenyan warriors, which they described as nasty and dreadful. That origin explains why some prefer the word “locs” over “dreadlocks.” In North America, locs were popularized in the 1970s by singer Bob Marley and later by Whoopi Goldberg and others who helped pave the way for a younger generation of celebrities to wear them, such as Chloe x Halle.
All of this helps explain why Jackson’s hairdo matters — particularly her Sisterlocks, a trademark look created by JoAnne Cornwell. The style is appealing because it’s versatile but also has a consistent shape, with such thin locks that the overall appearance can mimic unlocked hair strands.
They are increasingly popular with Black professional women, in part because they can appear more polished and professional than other styles of locs. But they are also one of the most costly natural hair styles out there. They are time-consuming and expensive to start, with certified consultants charging anywhere from $500 to well over $1,000 to start the process, which involves using a special tool to interlock tiny sections of hair at the root. In addition, the style calls for another $100 every four to six weeks for maintenance.
While dreadlocks might be on trend, that doesn’t mean they’re not still stigmatized. In one high-profile incident in 2015, Giuliana Rancic, who was then hosting the show “Fashion Police,” sparked controversy when she complained that teenage actor Zendaya’s faux locs looked as if they smelled like “patchouli and weed.”
There are also cases of legal discrimination for wearing locs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pursued action against a company that offered a woman, Chastity Jones, employment contingent upon her removing her dreadlocks. The case ended in defeat in a ruling that hair isn’t one of the immutable traits protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Jones’ experience brings to mind troubling accounts of employers’, teachers’ and other school administrators’ punishing Black people for their hair. A few years ago, a viral video showed a white official cutting a Black teenager’s hair as a requirement to compete in a wrestling match, even though he had already pulled back his hair. Incidents like these are the engine driving the CROWN Act, a law that passed the House on Friday to protect against race-based hair discrimination.
Just as important as any law, though, is the force of example. Jackson is a child of the ’70s, and her natural hair reflects the sentiments of the Black is Beautiful movement and the more recent Natural Hair Movement that combine personal style with politics. Many of us see the beauty of Black natural hair. We also see its supreme power.
Robyn Autry is chair of the Sociology Department at Wesleyan University. She is the author of “Desegregating the Past: The Public Life of Memory in the U.S. and South Africa,” and a fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto.