Stay Out of My Hair. Deal With My Work
A federal court has decreed that it’s legal for employers to ban dreadlocks in the workplace. But is it right?
This week, in a 3-0 decision, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against an Alabama company that rescinded a job offer because a black woman refused to cut off her dreadlocks.
I don’t want to, but I can see two sides in the issue. Dreads are a hairstyle; they aren’t an “immutable trait,” as the court says. They often have spiritual significance, and they take a lot of time and effort to grow and care for, but they are a hairstyle.
If they’re long and the person works around machinery where they might get caught, or in a kitchen where they might flop into the soup, OK, let’s regulate it — just as you would long hair of any type — hello hair net. Or, if an employer feels that a certain hairstyle is inappropriate for their particular workplace — a hair salon with a predominantly white customer base — it makes more sense for them to say you don’t meet our internal or external aesthetic. That too has its iffy sides, but I get it. Here, however, we’re not talking about a kitchen or a plant filled with dangerous, heavy machinery. We’re not talking about a salon filled to the brim with little old white ladies with beehives and blue-tinted bouffants. We’re talking about customer service. I’ll get to that in a minute.
With this ruling, we’re now walking a fine, fine line. If the Supreme Court can ban dreads from the workplace — a hairstyle almost exclusively favored by people of African descent, what’s next? At some point in the future, will my employer be legally able to force me to get a perm if they decide my curl pattern’s not right for the office?
The company involved in the incident that kicked it all off openly stated that this was a grooming issue. A piece published in Elle recounted the tale:
“In 2010, a woman named Chastity Jones received a job offer from Catastrophe Management Solutions in Mobile, Alabama. But according to Jones, a white human resources manager took issue with her dreadlocks, saying the style was against company policy because dreadlocks “tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” ’
Um, no. No I don’t. Actually, wait. I have seen some extremely messy dreads before — on white people’s heads. Sorry, guys. Certain textures of hair don’t work as well in certain hairstyles. It’s just a universal beauty shop truth.
But let’s dig into to that HR manager a bit. The woman openly said that dreads — also known as black, natural hair — are messy. There’s so much wrong with that, I don’t think I have enough strength in my fingers to type/battle it out. But ultimately it goes back to a not uncommon belief that natural black hair is offensive, dirty and ugly. Why? It doesn’t conform to the accepted standard of beauty. Comedian Paul Mooney said it best: If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.
Black hair has always been political, not to mention an endless source of curiosity. I’ve blogged more than once about incidents in the news where some poor black person’s body became the equivalent of a petting zoo for an unexposed person who regressed to toddler age and couldn’t keep their hands to themselves.
I’m no legal eagle; I don’t know the ins and outs of the case and the deliberation process that produced the final ruling, but it seems like one key side of the issue has been woefully neglected: Would Chastity Jones’ hair prevent her from giving excellent customer service? No. Not unless someone wrapped one of the dreads around her throat, and she couldn’t talk.
An unstated opinion or a belief rooted in bias should not be allowed to dictate policy. We can throw legal terms, arguments and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 around all day, but at the root this is about a perceived lack. Jones was judged not on her performance but on her appearance. Whether the employer’s decision to discriminate or behave in a biased and prejudicial manner was ultimately deemed legal or not, this woman was quietly labeled unattractive, and she lost the means to make a living because of it.
When it comes to the workplace we need to ask ourselves, what’s more important? Perception or performance?
Kellye Whitney is the associate editorial director for Workforce. To comment, email email@example.com.