Instead of a shoulder-length bob — the go-to style of black women in charge (à la Kamala Harris) — the hairstyle of Philadelphia’s incoming police commissioner Danielle Outlaw is shaved on the sides, complete with baby hair a poppin’. A cluster of copper-tipped micro-twists cascade down her back.
Dare I say Outlaw’s crescent-shaped eyebrows are on point? I wonder if her black nail polish is OPI Lincoln Park, or perhaps Licorice by Essie. And word is that Outlaw has tattoos — at least three of them.
Yet, take away her Ann Taylor-like suit and swap it with, say, a Milano di Rouge tracksuit, and I wonder if she looks like the very type of person the Philadelphia cops she oversees would stop on the street.
If she showed up at the police station with a black eye, would they take her domestic abuse complaints seriously? If she was reported missing, would it be a priority to find her?
Outlaw’s arrival as Philadelphia’s top cop is good for the city if for no other reason than her familiar Philly girl-next-door look might possibly make police officers think twice before disrespecting others who look like her. It’s my wish that perhaps they may be less quick to profile and more prone to listen. Because who knows who is on the other end of the baton?
“She’s signaling that she’s the consummate professional, but she’s also signaling her own membership in various communities as well ... Just by being [here] not only will her subordinates have to see her humanity, they have to respect her professionalism," explained Sharrona Pearl, an associate professor of modern ethics at Drexel University. Pearl’s research specializes in how our faces and clothing spark judgment. “These two things live together. This is not a contradiction, it may be a divergence from what has been done in the past. But it is not a contradiction.”
Our society requires that professionals follow certain fashion rules to be taken seriously and maintain a level of authority in the workplace. This often translates to conservative dress codes that leave no room for more permanent expressions of style. That means visible piercings and tattoos are frowned on if you are checking for a seat in the C-suite.
Women have to deal with even more fashion restrictions. Curly or straight, hair should be “controlled.” Only recently have gray roots become acceptable. But black women with tightly coiled hair have the extra burden of finding looks that others deem professional and we consider authentic — with our good-paying jobs on the line. (Thank God for the CROWN Act, a law pending in the some states and in Congress that will make it illegal to fire people for wearing ethnic styles.)
For this reason, the world is used to seeing black people, especially women, in positions of power have a certain look. Some might define it as black versions of white people. In other words, the more mainstream we look, the more non-threatening we seem to appear. And that’s what makes Outlaw different. Her optics suggest that maybe, just maybe, folks who don’t conform won’t be so quick to be stereotyped.
“When we wear our hair naturally or insert our own individuality with how we adorn ourselves, we risk not being able to make a living,” said Vashti DuBois, executive director of the Colored Girls Museum in Germantown. “This is why you will find that, in our communities, we will stifle each other’s individuality. It comes out of a desire for us to win. We hope that if we dress the right way, wear our hair the right way, do things that white people find acceptable, then we will win. Because there is this belief if that one of us wins, we all get to win.”
At 43, Outlaw has been a police officer for more than 20 years, so she knows the tricks of developing a personal style while in uniform. Her career started in her hometown of Oakland — she was just 16 when Rodney King was beaten within an inch of his life by the LAPD — then progressed through the ranks to her most recent stop as Portland’s police chief.
So she’s seen a lot. And I imagine she, like many black women, winced when she learned of the mysterious death of Sandra Bland or cringed watching the footage of Philando Castile’s girlfriend beg police officers not to kill her boyfriend. I know I have wondered, would those people be victims of police brutality if more people in power looked like Outlaw?
From Outlaw’s speech last week, it’s clear she’s a big believer in community policing in a way that allows for policing and humanity to exist in the same space.
“It’s an activist move in the sense that she’s saying that my culture, my history, and my identity can exist in this suit,” Pearl said. “She’s the suit, but she’s not just the suit.”
But DuBois reminds us that Outlaw’s presence can be just as much about inspiring as it is about policing.