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Naturally Unqualified: Black Hairstyles in the Workplace

Naturally Unqualified: Black Hairstyles in the Workplace

By: Macey Albert
Macey is a guest contributor with Mason Report® currently finishing her third year of law school.

America is the home of the free and a melting pot where a plethora of races, and cultures come together to make the country unique. With all the great cultures, styles, and races what is the standard for professionalism in the work place?

"Professional" and "neat" are subjective as appearance identifiers.

In 2013, the district court dismissed a complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) because it did not plausibly allege intentional racial discrimination. The 11th Circuit of Appeals recently, September 2016, upheld the lower court’s dismissal of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit. In the opinion, written by Judge Jordan, the court held that while discrimination based on black hair texture is prohibited, black hairstyles, such as dreads, are not prohibited in the workplace.  

The relationship between Ms. Jones and Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) started great. CMS, a claims processing company located in Mobile, Alabama announced that it was seeking candidates to work as customer service representatives. The job did not require personal contact with the public, as they would be taking telephone calls. Ms. Jones, who is a black, decided to take advantage of the job opportunity. She completed the online application and received an in person interview. She arrived to the interview dressed in a suit with her hair in short dreadlocks. A short time after the interview, the resources manager, who is white, informed Ms. Jones that she had been hired. At the time no one had commented on Ms. Jones’ hair. Following the great news, Ms. Jones met the manager to discuss scheduling. Before leaving, Ms. Jones was asked if her hair was in dreadlocks. She replied “yes”, and the manager replied “ CMS could not hire her with dreads.” When Ms. Jones asked what was the problem, the manger said, “ they tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” Ms. Jones refused to cut her hair and the manger told her that CMS could not hire her. At the time, CMS had a problematic race-neutral grooming policy.

Pictured here: Franchesca Ramsey, via chescaleigh.com

First, the EEOC stated that race, "is a social construct and has no biological definition." Second, the EEOC asserted, "the concept of race is not limited to or defined by immutable physical characteristics." Third, according to the EEOC Compliance Manual, the "concept of race encompasses cultural characteristics related to race or ethnicity," including "grooming practices." Fourth, although some non-black persons "have a hair texture that would allow the hair to lock, dreadlocks are nonetheless a racial characteristic, just as skin color is a racial characteristic."

The dress code of what is considered professional may stray from the cultural style preferences of many black people. Black people with professional jobs may sacrifice their hard work to get their dream job and be forced to change their appearance. “The reality is that your chances for getting a job and getting promoted are lessened  when you don’t conform/assimilate to an ideal, predefined standard of appearance in certain industries”.  Having kinky twists and corn rolls was even questioned in the military. A Black woman cannot defend her country because of her hairstyle. The reality for some Black people in the workplace is that their co-workers do not have to make them feel uncomfortable using racial words, it takes coworkers to unintentionally make Black workers feel uncomfortable just by upholding what is considered “normal” workplace culture.

An employee was told on numerous occasions not to return to work with her natural hair.  She was encouraged to wear weave to disguise her Afro hairstyle. Black women wear weave  for many reasons; part of the reason is because natural hair is seen as inappropriate for work and not socially accepted. Some Black women feel that in some circumstances it is a requirement to where weave in the workplace because with a weave, they are viewed as more equal.

While there are a plethora of styles for Black women, the style may not be conformed to what is considered professional. There is no control to how society understands the concept of natural hair, and the inconstancy with dreads.

Is it the hairstyle that needs to be fixed, or is it society’s view of what is professional is what is broken? Historically, the texture of hair has been used as a substantial determiner of race, and dreadlocks are a method of hair styling suitable for the texture of black hair and are culturally associated with black persons. Often, when black people choose to wear and display their hair in its natural texture in the workplace, rather than straightening it or hiding it, they are often stereotyped and not sufficiently assimilated into the corporate and professional world of employment.

Natural hair for a Black woman may be a fro, dreads, or curly, does the style of the hair really signify unprofessionalism? Well, the subjective approach with the ruling gives a standard to guide workplaces to what is considered professional. This approach does not bring a shock to the naked eye. Unprofessional hairstyles when googled often show images of Black Americans and their hairstyles.

The U.S. is a place where freedom is highly emphasized and protected. If workplaces are able to dictate how a person’s hair is to be worn, to emulate a culture that does not belong to that individual, then did the 11th Circuit get it right?

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