It’s not uncommon for businesses to expect their employees to dress in a uniform of some kind. We see it all the time, from the grocery stores we visit to our banks. Sometimes a uniform can be a casual polo shirt and khakis, and other times they can be more formal, like business attire in a corporate setting. But have you ever worked somewhere where you were expected to change your appearance entirely or were told you couldn’t wear your makeup or hair a certain way? One woman was, and now she’s firing back against her employers with a lawsuit. Destiny Tompkins, a 19-year-old African-American woman, was working in a Banana Republic store in the Westchester mall when she was told “her braids were too urban and unkempt.” In response, she’s filed a lawsuit against the popular clothing store for “$1 million for racial discrimination.”
The lawsuit itself was filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan and names “Banana Republic, the parent company, Gap Inc., White Plains store manager Michael Gennis and regional manager Jill Matejunas.” But what happened? Why exactly is Tompkins alleging racial discrimination? Well, the incident began when Gennis, a white man, told Tompkins that she would have to remove her braids. He even allegedly told her she “wouldn’t be scheduled for any shifts until she took her braids out.”
The conversation took place the same day that regional manager Matejunas visited the store back on October 4. Before the conversation took place, Tompkins, who was “ hired with natural hair on Sept. 19, braided her hair and worked for nearly a week before” Matejunas’s visit.
Despite the conversation, Tompkins refused to remover her braids because “she was not willing to conform to … expectation and/or policy of how a female, African-American employee should look.” According to the lawsuit, “Gennis used those seemingly facially neutral terms as code words to tell (Tompkins) that she looked ‘too black’ or ‘too African-American’ for the company’s workplace….Put differently, Matejunas and Gennis wanted (Tompkins) to look more Caucasian.”
After the incident, Tompkins left her job before her shift ended, understandably upset and appalled at what happened. When she returned home she posted about her experience on social media, and a Facebook post she posted explaining the matter quickly went viral. In the now viral post she recounted what happened, saying:
“Mike told me that my braids were not Banana Republic appropriate and that they were too “urban” and “unkempt” for their image. He said that if I didn’t take them out then he couldn’t schedule me for shifts until I did. When I tried to explain to him that it was a protective style for my hair bc 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. In that moment, I felt so uncomfortable and overwhelmed that I didn’t even finish my work shift and ended up leaving. When my friend’s mom called the store to find out my manager’s last name (only been working there a month so idk it), he refused to give it to her. 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.”
This grabbed the attention of Banana Republic, which in turn resulted in the company issuing a statement declaring it has “zero tolerance for discrimination.” The company also took steps to rectify the situation and mitigate negative publicity by firing Gennis. However, no legal action was “taken against Matejunas.”
When asked to comment on the matter the “White Plains Banana Republic referred calls for comment to the company press office.”