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That’s Hair Politics: Banning Dreadlocks in the Workplace

Did you know that even as the natural hair movement presses on, businesses can still legally ban dreadlocks in the workplace?

Yes. It’s true.  In fact, the Supreme Court recently denied hearing an argument from Chastity Jones (not pictured above) that her rights were infringed upon when a job offer was rescinded after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks.

What happened?

In 2010, Chastity Jones applied for a job with Catastrophe Management Solutions in Mobile, Alabama and received a conditional offer that was contingent on cutting her dreadlocks. When she refused, they withdrew the offer.

Feeling that her civil rights had been violated, Ms. Jones filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that filed a lawsuit with the company citing a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unfortunately, Jones lost the lawsuit.

Still eager to defend her rights, Jones appealed her case to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  The court upheld the original Judge’s decision. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that CMS’s “race-neutral” grooming policy was not discriminatory as hairstyles, while “culturally associated with race,” are not “immutable physical characteristics.”

On Monday, May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court denied a review of the circuit court’s decision, upholding the original ruling and allowing companies the discretion to ban dreadlocks in the workplace.

But are dreadlocks a mutable characteristic?

According to a CMS motion, “Race discrimination is unlawful and deplorable because it conditions employment on a factor unrelated to the job and entirely outside of the employee’s or applicant’s control. In contrast, employees and applicants—regardless of race—can control their dress, makeup, and hairstyling.”

But are dreadlocks a mutable characteristic and, if so, should discrimination based on mutable cultural characteristics be allowable?

Clearly, our hair is not a factor related to the job or our abilities to perform. And while dreadlocks themselves may be considered a mutable characteristic, hair textures should be considered immutable.

Persons of African descent tend to have thick, curly or tightly coiled hair that requires much attention, and dreadlocks are a healthy and protective hairstyle. Demanding that we “control” our hair textures to assimilate more to whiteness—which often requires damaging and manipulating our hair using heat and chemicals—feels like a form of violence. Also, dreadlocks have religious and spiritual affiliations. Early known evidence of dreadlocks can be found in Hinduism’s scriptures, The Vedas, with the dreadlocked Hindu God Shiva.  In addition, Mummified Egyptian pharaohs have been found with dreadlocks preserved.  And the hairstyle is often associated with Jamaica and the Rastafari Movement.

Using dreadlocks as a hiring decision, without understanding the reasons for wearing them, not only raises concerns about racial bias but may also infringe on religious liberties.

Who defines what is “professional?”

Black women, who are already up against White and male dominance in the workplace, may be particularly vulnerable to having others define standards of professionalism.

To have a shot at career advancement we must conform to White standards by communicating, behaving, dressing, and wearing our hair in a similar manner to White women. Presenting ourselves in a way that is too Black puts us at a disadvantage, so instead, we exert burdensome survival tactics like covering and code-switching. Risks of microaggressions and being overexposed often come with wearing our hair natural in White institutions.

Examining positions of power and authority can help us deconstruct the values and assumptions that undergird workplace policies.

This country has a lengthy history of power and control that was founded on White dominance and colonization. When large business owners and federal judges, who are predominately White, have the authority to decide what is deemed “professional” in the workplace at the disadvantage of people of color, this signifies a power imbalance.

Not only does this enable discrimination in the hiring process, it adds to the myriad of barriers facing people of color—and Black women in particular—in the workforce, from job entry to equal pay, to opportunities for upward mobility.  Given that more than 70% of all district and circuit court judges are White and more than 77% of business with paid employees are White, non-Hispanic owned (16.8% of businesses with paid employees are minority-owned), the agenda is stacked against us.

To address this imbalance, we need more Black women and people of color in positions of power and leadership that can inform workplace policies and federal court decisions. In addition, we must require companies to transition to anti-racist policies and practices, instead of allowing them to determine whether our hair, a natural extension of us, is deemed acceptable—whether our personhood is deemed acceptable.

Our hair matters, and so does our representation.

 

 

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