It seems that every other month another black woman is threatened with being fired from her job because she chooses to braid her hair. Bizarre reasons are offered for these actions, such as braids are "fads" and "extreme" hair styles that damage the corporate image.
In the latest case, Pamela Mitchell, 25, a reservationist at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington, was sent home from her job this week because she wore braids.
This is much ado about nothing. I mean, braids are here to stay and the wise employers in this city would do well to drop any policy restricting the wearing of braids -- and that includes Howard University Hospital and the D.C. police department as well as the Marriott and Hyatt hotels.
All an employer has to do is visit the National Museum of African Art on the Mall to see where this notion of braids comes from. It is centuries-old African culture. There is nothing militant about braids, as some hotel managers fear.
My sisters used to get their hair braided all the time. It was part of a long tradition between mother and daughter, sitting in front of a vanity mirror in the parent's bedroom, talking and getting their hair "twisted up," as it appeared to me.
It was an effective and practical way of styling black hair -- pure and simple.
Some employers just don't understand.
"We want our employes to project what we feel to be a professional image that reflects well on the corporation," said Marriott spokesman Robert Souers. "The word cornrows is not in the policy but they are generally thought to fall under the extreme category."
What they want is for black women to wear perms. You get the distinct impression that white corporate America is once again engaged in cultural oppression. Says Aylana Watkins Northern, a psychologist at the Howard University Counseling Service, "Essentially what black women are being told is that they, in their natural state, are unacceptable and that they must do something to change it."
Last year, Cheryl Tatum, a restaurant cashier for the Hyatt Hotel in Crystal City, was fired when she refused to unbraid her cornrows. She is now pursuing a discrimination claim before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In the case of Sydney Boone, a telephone operator with the Grand Hyatt, the "bad publicity" worked to her favor. Although Boone was hired for her job after showing up for one of two job interviews wearing braids, she was told to remove them after reporting to work.
"I told them I didn't understand what braids had to do with my work," Boone recalled in an interview. "They said, 'It's just a grooming policy. Remove them.' "
Boone began wearing a wig over her braids, and followed Tatum's lead by taking the matter to the EEOC.
By now, the Hyatt Hotels were making headlines across the country because of the policy. Even Jesse Jackson got into the act, threatening to boycott the Hyatt Hotels and cancel plans to use the facilities during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On Aug. 26, Boone received a notice from the Hyatt: Braided hair would now be allowed.
For the J.W. Marriott, there is a lesson to be learned here. It's not worth the fight. Pamela Mitchell, by all accounts, is an outstanding employe and a very nice person. Not only that, her job does not even entail working with the public, even though cornrows shouldn't make any difference whether she does or not.
It appears that some hotels in the nation's capital are more concerned about the perceptions of tourists than the feelings of black people who live and work here.
But if one side can threaten to fire black women because they wear braids, then the other side would have no choice but to heed Jesse Jackson's threat to boycott.