Why Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Locs Are About More Than Just Hair
By Mirenda Meghelli... A fellow lawyer and Black mother reflects on the impact of a role model with natural hair.
While listening to President Biden acknowledge Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s daughter Leila at the announcement of her nomination, I was suddenly overcome with emotion about what this nomination meant for my own 5-month-old daughter with the same name.
If Judge Jackson is confirmed, my daughter won’t experience a reality where the highest court in the country never had a justice that looked like her. I recognize the real-life consequences of her confirmation, particularly given that we are at a critical time in the nation’s legal history. I am scared to think of a future for my daughter where Roe v. Wade is overturned. Supreme Court decisions on healthcare, voting rights, and abortion access will impact my daughter, my son, and countless young people for generations to come. But I also see the symbolic importance and feel inspired by KBJ’s nomination.
Yes, it matters that Judge Jackson is a Black woman—and her hair holds significant importance.
While many women take for granted that the hair growing from their heads won’t be viewed as problematic, Black women and girls do not always have this luxury. In my lifetime, natural hair has been considered unprofessional, unattractive, and unkempt. As a Black woman, I know all too well the mental calculus I have to do when it comes to how I choose to wear my hair. It’s an exhausting, additional burden Black women have to consider that our white counterparts don’t.
The year I graduated from law school in 2007, female lawyers at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton were counseled that natural hair was a no-go in the workplace. This incident was widely discussed within my network, and even though I worked in the public sector instead of at a white-shoe law firm, it affirmed my feeling that I needed to “look the part.” I straightened my hair for the interview at the public defender’s office and as an attorney there felt pressure to do so before court appearances. When I started, twice I was confused for a client, not a lawyer—despite the fact that I always dressed in a suit and clients were almost always dressed casually. I didn’t want my clients to be penalized if others saw me as unprofessional because I wore my hair in its natural state.
I’ve had natural hair since I was 18. Yet, the first time I showed up to a job interview after law school without straightening my hair was in 2020—at age 40. And only two reasons influenced my choice: It was the pandemic and the CEO also had natural hair. The chances were slim that I’d be penalized for showing up to work as my true self.
And that’s why Judge Jackson’s decision to have locs speaks volumes to women like me. There’s no code-switching with locs—you can’t just straighten them or hide them for an interview. They are a part of who Judge Jackson is and a clear reminder that she is bringing her full, authentic self into any space she enters, including these confirmation hearings. The fact that many Black women feel like they have to hide, tamp down, or minimize a part of themselves to get jobs they’re more than qualified for is a depressing truth—and a clear reminder that hair still represents far more than just a style preference. The CROWN Act, legislation that bans natural hair discrimination in schools and workplaces, only passed the House last week.
Despite absurd questioning, KBJ is more than qualified to serve on this court. She is shifting the dynamic, not just with her lived experience and her career, but in redefining what leadership looks like.
I will teach my daughter to celebrate Black women with all types of hairstyles because our hair is our crown, and we are beautiful in the diversity of hairstyles, whether we choose to relax our hair or rock a blowout, braids, locs, weaves, or Afros. With that said, I hope my baby girl will one day understand the significance of Judge Jackson wearing a natural hairstyle in this historic moment. My daughter can grow up knowing that not only is natural hair beautiful and appropriate for a lawyer, in fact, it’s a go-to style for a Supreme Court Justice.
In her speech accepting the nomination and again during the opening remarks at the confirmation hearing this week, Judge Jackson spoke of Constance Baker Motley, an important legal change maker in the civil rights movement. She understood the importance of the Black women before her expanding what is possible despite the exhausting sexism and racism thrown their way. It is my prayer that Ketanji Brown Jackson will be able to create an expanded sense of what is possible for my daughter by being the first, but certainly not the last, Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice.
Mirenda Meghelli is the senior manager of policy and programs at the Women’s Funding Network, the largest philanthropic network in the world devoted to gender equity and justice.