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.
According to a recent study by the Perception Institute, one in five black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work, and though all women worry about about how their hair is perceived, black women are much more likely to feel anxiety over the issue than white women are. That anxiety is apparently warranted: the Perception Institute also found that, irrespective of race, the majority of the more than 4,000 people who participated in the study demonstrated an implicit bias against black women’s (naturally) textured hair, rating it less professional than smoother hair. As the study concludes, be it overall perceptions of professionalism, first impressions during an interview, or general ideas about health and beauty, “attitudes toward black women’s hair can shape opportunities in these contexts, and innumerable others.”
Bias against black women’s textured hair can play out in a number of ways in the workplace, from everyday cultural slights and comments regarding these women’s hairstyles, to more concrete challenges such as misguided hiring decisions. And while banter in the break room surrounding a black colleague’s new hairstyle may seem like an otherwise innocuous conversation point, it may actually contribute to, or be a symptom of, a workplace culture in which black women are professionally judged over their hair.
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”: