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Dreadlock Bans: Now Legal, Still Racist

It’s now legal to refuse to hire someone based on the fact that they wear dreadlocks, according to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
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The court recently dismissed a suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Chastity Jones, a black applicant whose job offer was rescinded after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks in accordance with Mobile, Ala.-based Catastrophe Management Solutions’ “race-neutral” grooming policy.

Background on the Ruling

The EEOC argued that rescinding Jones’ offer based on her hairstyle was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. According to court documents, the EEOC laid out its argument as follows:

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First, the EEOC stated that race “is a social construct and has no biological definition.” Second, the EEOC asserted that “the concept of race is not limited to or defined by immutable physical characteristics.” Third, according to the EEOC Compliance Manual, the “concept of race encompasses cultural characteristics related to race or ethnicity,” including “grooming Practices.”  Fourth, although some non-black persons “have a hair texture that would allow the hair to lock, dreadlocks are nonetheless a racial characteristic, just as skin color is a racial characteristic.”

The court disagreed, finding that hairstyles, even if “culturally associated with race,” are not “immutable physical characteristics.”

Why Your Employer Shouldn’t Ban “Culturally Associated” Hairstyles

When it comes to rulings like this, “legal” and “right” are two very different things. Make no mistake: if your employer has a grooming policy that prohibits dreadlocks (or cornrows, twists, or other hairstyles associated with black culture), they’re perpetuating bias against African-Americans in the workplace.

Take, for example, the statement from Catastrophe Management Solution’s Human Resources Manager Jeannie Wilson about why she couldn’t hire Jones with dreadlocks: “they tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.”

Yes, everyone knows what you’re talking about. That’s the problem.

Bias against natural hairstyles for black women runs deep, and not just in Corporate America. A 2013 article in Ebony describes women with natural hair experiencing discrimination in all walks of professional life, from academia to park services. Even students are not immune: some schools still forbid students from wearing dreadlocks, cornrows, or other hairstyles associated black culture.

The problem with allowing bias to dictate policy is clear: it places an undue burden on black women, forcing them to endure costly treatments in order to adhere to a grooming code, while perpetuating stereotypes that characterize African-Americans as “messier” and therefore less professional than other races.

It also bolsters the perception that whiteness is “normal” and preferable. That’s bad for individual employees of all races, bad for corporate culture, and bad for society. Regardless of what courts determine, if you’re a decision-maker at your company, you should support a grooming policy that’s inclusive, not divisive and discriminatory.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever been asked to change your hairstyle to adhere to grooming codes? We want to hear from you. Join the conversation on Twitter or leave a comment.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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