If you look at Banana Republic’s advertising campaigns, the company appears to portray a certain image, one that an employee in Westchester County says she does not fit into. 19-year-old Destiny Tompkins, who has worked at the White Plains, New York Banana Republic location for about a month, alleges that she was recently reprimanded for “violating the store’s dress code” in connection with her braided hair.
Tompkins has spoken out against the Gap, Inc.-owned brand this week, claiming that she was called into a meeting with her manager on Wednesday, and informed that her hair was “a little too urban and unkempt for [the brand’s] look and image.” Her manager, a 30-something white male, proceeded to ask her if she would unbraid her hair and “said that if [she] didn’t take them out then he couldn’t schedule [her] for shifts.”
The Harlem native – who has since taken to her Facebook page to detail the account – continued on to note: “When I tried to explain to him that it was a protective style for my hair [because] it tends to become really brittle in the cold, he recommended that I use shea butter for it instead. I have never been so humiliated and degraded in my life by a white person … Box braids are not a matter of unprofessionalism, they are protective styles black women have used for their hair and to be discriminated against because of it is truly disgusting and unacceptable.”
Tompkins – who works at Banana Republic part-time while attending college at SUNY Purchase, where she is a sophomore – says she would like this manager to apologize, to be disciplined by the company, and most importantly, to truly understand why she was offended by his comments about the braids she had just put in about a week ago.
“You are telling me I’m too black to work here and you have a problem with the way I present myself as a black woman,” Tompkins wrote. She further stated that she “felt so uncomfortable and overwhelmed that [she] didn’t even finish my work shift and ended up leaving,” and that she and her family are considering legal action, citing “clear cut discrimination.”
Tompkins says: “I felt so overwhelmed and confused and just, I just felt so powerless within that moment.”
Banana Republic released a statement Friday saying it is investigating the incident: “We are committed to upholding an inclusive environment where our customers and our employees feel respected.”
The Legality of “Look” Policies
This is not the first time a mainstream retailer has come under fire for employing a questionable dress code. Abercrombie & Fitch was on the receiving end of a highly-publicized lawsuit in 2009 in connection with its “Look Policy” – a list of guidelines that a company imposes upon its employees in regards to certain aspects of their physical appearance – after Samantha Elauf filed suit against the retailer, claiming that she was denied a sales job in 2008 at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ms. Elauf, a young Muslim woman, claims she was passed over the for a job because her black headscarf was not in compliance with the fashion retailer’s “Look Policy.”
After the case made its rounds in the lower courts, the Supreme Court opted to weigh in on the matter, finding that Abercrombie violated workplace discrimination law when it failed to hire Elauf. While that case centered on a religious accommodation in accordance with Title VII of the of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, it has some relevant takeaways for Tompkins’ (as of now) hypothetical case against Banana Republic, nonetheless.
In the Abercrombie case, the Supreme Court concluded that companies can have dress codes and a company could “surely have” a no-headwear policy, for instance, but it could not make use of such policies in furtherance of a discriminatory motive. As set forth in an article in the University of Cincinnati College of Law Review, “As long as [a retailer] treats hair equally across gender, race, color, and national origin, it could likely require an applicant’s hair to be [styled a certain way] without violating the federal statute.”
As for whether the instance at hand is free of race-based bias on behalf of Banana Republic, it seems unlikely based on the manager’s choice of words, namely, “urban,” and could thereby give rise to viable claims of discrimination in accordance with Title VII of the of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
UPDATED: Banana Republic posted the following statement on its Twitter account on Monday: