A US appeals court has ruled 3–0 that an employer was within their rights not to hire a black woman who refused to cut her dreadlocks, dismissing a discrimination case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Wall Street Journal reported late last week:
Delving into weighty questions about the concept of race, the case began in 2013 when the EEOC accused an insurance claims processing company in Mobile, Ala., of discriminating against an applicant named Chastity Jones. Ms. Jones applied to work for Catastrophe Management Solutions as a customer service representative in 2010. Initially, she was hired. But the job came with a request: The company’s human resources manager told her she needed to cut her dreadlocks to comply with its grooming policy.
The company requires employees to be dressed and groomed “in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image.” And dreadlocks, the HR manager told Ms. Jones, “tend to get messy.” When Ms. Jones refused to change her hair, the company withdrew the offer.
The EEOC alleged that the “prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” The argument, the EEOC said, is based on an understanding of race as “a social construct” that “has no biological definition.”
Judge Adalberto Jordan disagreed, however, noting that while “there have been some calls for courts to interpret Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] more expansively by eliminating the biological conception of ‘race’ and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race,” his court was not prepared to blaze a trail on that definition. “As far as we can tell,” he wrote in the court’s opinion, “every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race.”
Workforce legal commentator Jon Hyman calls the case “a fascinating read on whether protected classes are tied to biological characteristics or societal constructs, and whether what is considered immutable can change with changes in ethos”:
Or, to look at this question differently, should the law fix the definition of “race” in 1964 when Congress passed Title VII, or should that definition change over time with changes in society? While I believe the 11th Circuit correctly decidedCatastrophe Management Solutions on the specific issue of whether this employer used dreadlocks as a proxy for race discrimination, how one ultimately comes down on the more general issue of biology versus culture will also dictate whether you believe, for example, sex discrimination covers LGBT issues.
There are no easy answers to these deep philosophical questions. I am just happy that the courts are open to the debate.
On the other hand, Vox’s Victoria Massie puts the ruling in the context of other recent controversies around black women’s hair to illustrate how an employer characterizing a natural black hairstyle as “messy” can be a racially charged statement:
Black people may have a choice in how they style their hair, but they don’t have control in how society at large understands their hair — however they wear it. Inconsistent attitudes toward dreadlocks also prove this point. In his latest New York Fashion Week runway show, Marc Jacobs styled his mostly nonblack models in faux dreadlocks to showcase the latest “high-fashion” look. Meanwhile, the same hairstyle has been treated like a fashion faux pas or the punchline of a joke on black people. TV personality Giuliana Rancic infamously said Zendaya looked like she “smell[ed] like patchouli oil … or weed” while wearing dreadlocks at the 2015 Academy Awards. …
These attitudes even factor into federal guidelines. In April 2014, the Armysparked controversy after updating its hair grooming rules in Army Regulation 670-1 to specify that only smaller braids and twists were allowed aside from chemically straightened hair. Dreadlocks and Afros were prohibited, and unacceptable styles were described in loaded terms like“matted and unkempt.” … The problem is that society devalues black hair regardless of how black people wear it. So while Jones did have a choice to cut off her locks, she didn’t have a choice in how her hairstyle was, by default, deemed unfit for the workplace. And that’s the fundamental problem that focusing on “immutable characteristics” overlooks.
As it happens, another lawsuit the EEOC filed in Florida in July also concerns the question of dreadlocks. In that suit, a Rastafariasn employee who wore dreadlocks was terminated after a year on the job after he was asked to cut them and refused on religious grounds.