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Bantu knots are the latest natural hairstyle at the center of a workplace dispute

A Ross Dress for Less employee says she was told to remove hers.

Bantu knots originated from the ethnic groups of Southern Africa.
A woman with bantu knots.
Getty Images/Rubberball

Afros. Braids. Locs.

For years, schools, workplaces, and even the armed forces have banned these natural hairstyles. Now, bantu knots are the source of a hairstyle dispute. Sometimes described as twisted mini buns, Bantu knots originated from the hundreds of ethnic groups spread across Southern Africa. (“Bantu” is a catchall term for these groups and simply means “people.”)

This week, a video of a Denver employee of Ross Dress for Less alleging that a manager forbade her to wear her hair in the traditional style has garnered more than 130,000 views and more than 5,200 comments on the WorldstarHipHop blog. The video was uploaded to the site on December 16.

The worker, only identified by the name on her badge, Antoinette, said that she’d recently worn her locs in the style, and her supervisor did not complain. But when another manager visited her store one night, “He made it a point to say that he had a problem with my hairstyle, and he needed me to change it,” she said in the video, also posted to YouTube.

When she returned for work wearing her hair in bantu knots again, she said her immediate supervisor asked her to straighten out her hair. She alleged the manager wanted to send a photograph of her with the knots taken down to the higher-up who’d complained.

“I feel like I have to take a piece of myself away,” she said of her hair in the video. The employee noted that she was on her way to buy a headwrap to cover her “unpresentable hair” but argued that the Ross handbook made no mention of hairstyles.

A corporate spokesperson did not verify to Vox what, if anything, the handbook says about hairstyles. She did, however, describe Ross as “committed to creating an inclusive working environment free from discrimination, which we enforce with policies implemented in each store.” Seventy-two percent of Ross employees are people of color, according to the company’s corporate responsibility guide.

In early December, however, Bloomberg Law reported that a former Ross Dress for Less manager in Houston, who is black, was suing the company for age and racial discrimination. Ross has also been sued for racially profiling a black customer in Oregon.

The Ross spokesperson, who did not want to be named, said that the company is aware of concerns the Denver employee, Antoinette, raised about her hair, and is making an effort to address them.

“We fully support our associate and are working with her to resolve this issue,” the spokesperson told Vox. “We value and respect all of our associates and are committed to this not happening in the future.”

SInce the 1990s, bantu knots, sometimes called Zulu knots or Nubian knots, have crept into the US mainstream. Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Mel B were among the first black celebrities in the West to wear the hairdo or a variation of it. More recently, Rihanna, Amandla Stenberg, and Uzo Aduba have worn the style; but so have white celebrities like Bjork, Gwen Stefani, and Khloe Kardashian, who faced accusations of cultural appropriation when she wore the look in 2016.

Singer Rihanna.
Rihanna, with the front section of her hair styled in bantu knots.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Westbury RoadEntertainment, LLC.

Women of color concerned about cultural appropriation point out that while they are often shamed for wearing their hair in ways that reflect their ethnic heritage, white women who “borrow” these styles are typically praised for being innovators. Black women in particular have faced economic consequences for wearing their hair in natural styles, most famously Chastity Jones, an Alabama woman who in 2010 had a job offer rescinded for refusing to cut off her locs. Although she took the company to court, an Alabama federal judge determined that the company’s decision did not constitute racial discrimination because “a hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic.” The US Supreme Court has refused to hear Jones’s case.

In May, the US Navy finally lifted its ban on a number of hairstyles often worn by black women, such as locs and French braids. The move came more than a year after the Army also overturned its ban on locs. And for years, a number of schools have barred black students from wearing braids.

In 2016, the Perception Institute released its “Good Hair Study” that found one in five black women “feel social pressure to straighten their hair.” But Antoinette, the Ross Dress for Less employee, urged the viewers of her video post to take pride in their appearance.

“It is important for girls and people of color to know that you are beautiful,” she said in the video, “even if people don’t accept what isn’t quote-unquote the fucking norm.”

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