The Culture of Hair

On September 15, 2016 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that allows dreadlocks to be banned in the workplace.   Our identity has a lot of components, with some being more visible than others, such as hair, and this does not make them necessarily more vulnerable to attack, but a more accessible target.  How we wear our hair and what we do with it are intricate expressions of our identity and these characteristics are immediately recognizable.  To face discrimination for how we represent ourselves is uncalled for, yet that is the heart of this case.

In 2010, Chastity Jones was in the final stages of hiring to work for Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), a claims processing company in Alabama that provides customer service support to insurance companies, when she was asked about her hair.  Ms. Jones wore her hair in short dreadlocks and was told in a meeting by another woman that she could not be hired by CMS with dreadlocks because “they tend to get messy.”  Ms. Jones refused to cut her hair and walked away.  She then contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and in 2013 they filed a lawsuit against CMS on the basis of racial discrimination citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VII protects employees against discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex.  These protections have been expanded over time to include age and disability, while sex has evolved to encompass gender identity and sexual harassment.  Interestingly, the EEOC was created by Title VII and exists to ensure these sorts of discrimination cease to continue. In 2014, the federal district court of Alabama dismissed the EEOC’s claim and so they appealed, and now we know they have lost.

The loss isn’t definitive as the Supreme Court could establish a precedent overruling this one if a similar case made it that far, but the loss isn’t surprising once you examine the details of the case.

  1.  The EEOC made a mistake by filing a claim of disparate treatment instead of disparate impact — a disparate treatment claim is filed when the discrimination is intentional and the disparate impact claim is understood as unintentional discrimination.  So why the claim for disparate treatment by the EEOC? I’m not sure.  Perhaps their concern was a ruling based on disparate impact would not be persuasive enough.
  2. There’s also the issue of “immutable” vs. “mutable” characteristics of race .U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, whom delivered the ruling, stated, “we recognize that the distinction between immutable and mutable characteristics of race can sometimes be a fine (and difficult) one, but it is a line that courts have drawn.  So, for example, discrimination on the basis of black hair texture (an immutable characteristic) is prohibited by Title VII, while adverse action on the basis of black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not.”

By focusing only on immutable characteristics, the scope of Title VII in this regards seems limited.  The EEOC reminded the court race “is a social construct and has no biological definition”, but defining race in respect to culture is another issue to consider; which the court doesn’t currently recognize or take into consideration.

“Our point is to not take a stand on any side of this debate – we are, after all, bound by Willingham and Garcia [note: previous cases which are referred to for precedent] – but rather to suggest that, given the role and complexity of race in our society, and the many different voices in the discussion, it may not be a bad idea to try to resolve through the democratic process what ‘race’ means (or should mean) in Title VII” noted Jordan.

Suggesting an amendment to Title VII to include cultural aspects in regards to race would not be a problem, but no such steps were taken in reference to sexual orientation or gender identity.  The understanding of “sex” has instead evolved to include these terms and historically the evolution of terms along with our understanding has led to changes. Race is a social construct created by imperial powers and used to enforce systems of inequality and oppression, and it is intricately bound to culture based on the way those powers inevitably influenced the culture of those they came into contact with.  So associating race with culture, which is a way of life particular to one group of peoples, would be the sensible progression as they are intricately bound.

Black women are the most marginalized identity in America.  To attack their hair is a coded assault on their identity, forcing them to change their visual representation to conform to standards of beauty based in “whiteness”.  There is already a lack of representation of women of color in society and they face the same pressures of other women to change themselves to fit standards of beauty that are not inclusive to all body types.  At some point, this assault on women of color must come to an end.

Our personal decisions with hair cannot remain eternally bound to society’s norms of “whiteness”.  The constitution of dreadlocks as unprofessional is an extension of this infringement upon expression and implicitly forces non-white peoples to change their hair to fit this standard.  When people do wear their hair naturally, it comes as a surprise to others which can lead to comments and misunderstandings attributable to microaggressions which are equally damaging.  The pressure to conform and the barriers that may appear in the workplace or other social and or professional spaces makes wearing hair naturally difficult, but not impossible. Wear your hair as you find it most uniquely representing you.  Whether this is natural, straightened, curled, etc. Find what suits you best at that moment and don’t feel bad if that changes as long as it makes you happy.  Any style can be clean, professional, and acceptable, it’s up to you to teach society that perception.

-Vaughn Hunt

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