Hair Politics in Ketanji Brown Jackson's Confirmation HearingBreaking News
tags: Supreme Court, African American history, Ketanji Brown Jackson
Robin Autry is chair of the Sociology Department at Wesleyan University.
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.
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.
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