In 2016, a US appeals court ruled against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a suit the agency had brought on behalf of Chastity Jones, a black woman who had been denied employment at the Mobile, Alabama insurance claims processing company Catastrophe Management Solutions after she refused to cut her dreadlocks in compliance with the company’s grooming policy. Absent an explicit racial dimension to the policy, the court ruled, CMS was within its rights to ban dreadlocks in general as part of its dress code.
The EEOC chose not to pursue the case further, but the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sought to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court. Last week, however, the high court said it would not take the case. The court’s refusal to hear this case is a blow to advocates who see workplace hairstyle policies like these as discriminatory in effect if not intent, as they place greater constraints on the choices black people, and particularly black women, than other employees and often penalize black employees for wearing natural hairstyles. Implicit bias against black women’s naturally textured hair is a well-documented phenomenon in American society, which causes many black women to experience pressure to artificially straighten their hair or wear hairpieces.
CMS’s dress code did not explicitly mention dreadlocks, but rather mandated grooming that reflected a “professional image” and barred “excessive hairstyles.” This suggests to Rewire’s senior legal analyst Imani Gandy that such policies as applied are not as race-neutral as they appear on paper:
First, CMS’s purported race-neutral grooming policy is anything but—since it excludes Black women’s natural hairstyles based on stereotypes that natural hairstyles are unprofessional, messy, not neat, political, radical, too eye-catching, or excessive.
Second, the 11th Circuit ruled against the EEOC based on antiquated and incorrect notions about race being a biological imperative rather than a social construct, which led to a hopelessly confused decision wherein the court tried to differentiate between racial characteristics that are immutable—hair texture—and those that are not—hair styles. The court ignored that Black women should not be forced to divest themselves of their racial cultural identity in order to obtain or maintain a job in predominantly white corporate spaces. In other words, it ignored the fact that hair styles are often not race-neutral.
Writing at Racked, Nadra Little finds it telling that the manager at CMS “seemed to think that [dreadlocks] are inherently ‘messy,’ no matter how they’re groomed or styled, or who’s wearing them,” and that none of the judges who heard Jones’s case saw any problem with this reasoning:
That perception derives from long-running stereotypes about black people and their natural hair. Be it in schools, the workplace, the military, or even the red carpet, traditional black hairstyles, such as locs, braids, cornrows, and Afros have come under attack. When Zendaya stepped on the red carpet with dreadlocks in 2015, “Fashion Police” correspondent Giuliana Rancic said that the young actress looked like she “smells like patchouli oil. Or weed.”
The idea that naturally textured black hair is unacceptable in some way is firmly entrenched in the Western imagination, so much so that Jones felt it necessary to note how she maintains her locs. … If gender stereotypes can be a form of discrimination, then racialized stereotypes about hair should be deemed a form of discrimination too.