In Ketanji We Trust - How Ketanji’s Hair and Heritage Raise the Bar for Justice in America

by Rhianna Jones

It took a mere 232 years and 115 appointments for the first Black woman to take the Supreme Court, but beyond the profound experience and acumen she’s bringing to the bench, Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hair and heritage merit recognition too.

In the same nation where Africans’ names were forcibly changed by their slave owners, or electively “whitened” to pass through Jim Crow segregation, with a gleaming smile, Justice Jackson introduced her African name Ketanji Onyika to the court, a gift from her HBCU graduate parents meaning “lovely one.”

Now, in an era where children are named after organic produce and cardinal directions, one’s name might seem less bearing on our identity, but once upon a time - specifically for Black, Immigrant, and Indigenous children - it could dictate your whole life. I’ll never forget when my late father Tyrone Xavier Jones told me why he went by “T.X.,” and not once in my 29 years of knowing him did he use his full name. “When I was your age Tyrone couldn’t get a job. As T.X., I could at least get in the door for an interview.”

My father’s story echoes a larger issue, substantiated by a milestone 2004 study on Black racial bias in hiring, *Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?. In the study, MIT and U of C researchers sent resumes with randomly assigned White and Black sounding names to want ads in Boston and Chicago. “Black” names received 50% the callbacks as their White counterparts despite the same resume. A similar study on Systemic Discrimination among Large US Employers in 2021 sent 83,000 randomized Black and White sounding resumes to 108 leading employers and also confirmed that Black names reduced probability of callbacks.

The unfortunate truth of this “resume test” is one of the many nuanced ways systemic discrimination permeates the marginalized existence. While Black people are not alone in this, like the countless Asian immigrants who adopt English names for pronunciation ease, or the opportunities new citizens are given to change theirs upon naturalization, the cultural “choice” plagues many. To that sentiment, in her confirmation ceremony she quoted Maya Angelou’s *Still I Rise, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” *

Ketanji’s confirmation defies and decolonizes supremacist norms, bringing her ancestral legacy to the highest seat at the table.

In another nod to Black Power, Ketanji’s signature hairstyle, Sisterlocks, are an equally symbolic feat for solidarity. Created in 2004 by Africana Scholar Dr. JoAnne Cornwell,Sisterlocks are a modified Rastafarian loc designed to champion natural hair for the workplace, with a lighter weight and simpler-to-style texture.

But, while Ketanji’s hairstyle is a statement of Black expression and empowerment, Eurocentric beauty standards have been denigrating our hair and humanity for decades.

Black hair, like Ketanji’s locs, Afros, braids and other natural styles, have been long policed and punished through oppressive school codes and employee handbooks calling out our “distracting,” “unprofessional” and “unkempt” hair. From a Texas teen having his fade sharpied in, to a New Orleans woman being fired for not wearing a wig, this white supremacist thinking denies Black kids of their education and adults from professional advancement worldwide.

Ketanji’s confirmation comes in the same Congressional chambers reviewing The “Crown Act,” a years-long fight to Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. This national legislation would ban Black hair discrimination in school, housing and the workplace, equating it to a human rights violation. Is it revolting that this law *even has to exist?* Yes. Is it also true that Black hair, brains and bodies are constantly having to prove their worth? Yes. Ketanji’s racially charged and excruciating hearings confirm the increased scrutiny Black women’s appearance and intelligence face in positions of power. Especially on Capitol Hill, as evidenced by Ayanna Pressley’s courageous Alopecia journey and Ilhan Omar’s unending Hijabi trials. But like them, Ketanji’s unyielding tenacity in the face of opposition reminds us to protest and progress as our whole selves.

In Ketanji’s closing words “To be sure, I have worked hard to get to this point in my career, but no one does this on their own. The path was cleared for me, so that I might rise to the occasion.” Time and time again, Black women continue to save the day and lead the way, clearing paths through pain and promise.

Presiding over a polarized (in)justice system will bring many challenges, considering the increased affront on women’s, trans and immigrant lives, but her win gives voice to countless Americans whose existence is rarely seen, heard or represented.

While she may be beyond her ancestor’s, or my father’s wildest dreams, Justice Ketanji Onyika will continue to blaze trails in her truth, bucking stereotypes and bringing the culture up along the way.

Illustration by Chloe Devine @devinecreativestudio