In September 2016, a federal appeals court ruled that employers can ban dreadlocks in the workplace without running afoul of Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964. This seemingly innocuous ruling carries some weight, as the legal reasoning involved in the decision challenges how we define race. Or at least, what limits we put on self-expression in the workplace.
The logic of the court
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Chastity Jones, a woman whose job offer was rescinded by Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) because of the woman’s dreadlocks. A human resources manager for the company, located in Mobile, Alabama, is quoted as saying to Jones that “[dreadlocks] tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.”
The message, essentially, was that the hair cancelled out the job offer. And the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that refusing to hire someone because of their dreadlocks is legal, denying the EEOC’s interpretation of race. In their suit, the EEOC argued that this firing violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that dreadlocks are a hairstyle “physiologically and culturally associated” with African-Americans and that a company grooming policy banning them is stereotypical and inherently discriminatory.
Taking this route did nothing to help the EEOC’s case. Plenty of races other than African Americans sport dreadlocks. The hairstyle is simply not exclusive to one race. And that acknowledgement led the court of appeals to decide that CMS operates a “race-neutral grooming policy” that does not discriminate against hairstyles.
More importantly, the court determined that while “culturally associated with race,” hairstyles are not “immutable physical characteristics.” In other words, if your appearance includes traits that are tied to your culture but are traits that can be changed, then these traits are not protected and job offers can be denied.
How we define race
We live in a culture where putting your photo on your resume is not the norm. Qualifications for a job are, in most cases, based on experience and education. Hiring managers don’t choose interview candidates based on attractiveness. But once you do meet in-person, another ballgame begins. If you walk in with dreadlocks, depending on the open-mindedness and policies of the hiring company, you might find yourself on the outside looking in.
“Although Title VII does not define ‘race,’ the judicial interpretation includes immutable characteristics existing through ancestry, descent, or heredity,” says Tracy Sanders, Los Angeles attorney, author, and founder of Natural Hair and Law, an organization formed to provide publications, workshops, and events addressing legal issues related to natural hair in the workplace and schools. Immutable characteristics cannot be altered (such as the natural texture of hair), while mutable characteristics may be altered (such as hairstyles, even ones that are in keeping with the characteristics of the wearer’s natural hair).
“The Eleventh Circuit held that dreadlocks are culturally associated with the black race, but they are not an immutable characteristic such as natural hair or facial features at birth. Unlike natural hair such as an afro growing out of a person’s scalp, dreadlocks are a natural hairstyle that can be altered,” says Sanders.
In November 2016, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed an amicus brief arguing in support of a petition for rehearing EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions en banc (that is, a hearing before the full appellate court, as opposed to the three-judge panel that heard the original appeal). While en banc sessions are rare, it’s conceivable that one might be granted in this case, as the decision affects many people, regardless of their race.
Not only does this ruling play with notions of how we define race—it also asks us to question our ideas of beauty and professionalism. Attitudes are often in flux on what constitutes “professionalism,” of course (like having visible tattoos, for instance). But perhaps the most important question is this: how many employees, particularly from the Millennial generation, are going to want to work for a business that puts arbitrary restrictions on appearance—especially ones that might be construed as racist? The answer to that question will likely do more than any law in driving how businesses set up their hiring policies going forward.