Excerpted from: April Williams, My Hair Is Professional Too!: A Case Study and Overview of Laws Pertaining to Workplace Grooming Standards and Hairstyles Akin to African Culture, 12 Southern Journal of Policy and Justice 138 (Fall, 2018) (245 Footnotes) (Full Document) (Student Note)
Imagine being turned down for a job simply because of how you styled your hair, especially when you know that your hair and appearance have nothing to do with the quality of your work, your level of education, or your ability to perform the tasks of the job in question. The trade-off is either wearing your hair in its natural state with the styles best suited for your hair texture or wearing hairstyles that employers deem to be appropriate in the workplace. Under the current laws, an employer has the right to refuse to hire, fire, or take other adverse action against African American employees who wear braids, dreadlocks, or other natural hairstyles.
I decided to wear my hair in its natural hair texture in 2007, right before I graduated from The University of Toledo with a Master of Arts. I was at a point in my life where I was tired of wearing my hair in a relaxer, in hair extensions, and in hair weaves. I was also tired of repeating the same hair cycles. I would get a relaxer, wear my hair straight for a period of time, then my hair would break off, causing the beautician to cut large amounts of my hair off. I would refuse to put a relaxer in my hair for a few months and then start the same cycle all over again that rendered the same results. And when I entered the workforce, this issue became even more challenging. Being an Elite Athlete and having to stay physically fit, maintaining these hairstyles became increasingly difficult. However, my family taught me that wearing my hair straight was appropriate. And through my observations of African American working women, I learned that straight hairstyles were preferred by employers. Even my college teammates and friends could not understand why I wanted to go from wearing my hair straight--which was well accepted in society--to wearing it in a kinky afro is commonly associated with being rebellious and uncaring as to your appearance. I wanted to embrace my beautiful, natural hair texture and to also stop the pattern of repeated damage to my hair. I was ready to embrace my roots and get my hair back to a healthy state by wearing styles that were akin to African culture and styles that were traditionally worn by people with kinkier hair textures. However, I did not expect to enter into the workplace as an educated woman and hear my supervisor say that my natural hair looked “fun” and was a “little too big” to wear to work. At that moment, I felt my hairstyle was more important to my employer than my level of competency to complete my work-related tasks.
My personal story is not unique. African American women in the workplace struggle with whether they should wear their natural hair textures or conform to the societal acceptance of straight hairstyles. In a story that made national news in 2015, two African American women (one who worked for a North Carolina news station and the other who was a college sophomore interning at the news station), made a short video showing the one coworker with thick, curly, natural, blonde hair and the other coworker with a short, straight bob haircut. The woman with the straight bob hair cut explained to the younger woman with the thick, curly hair that if she wanted to be taken seriously on the job, the younger woman would need to straighten her hair as she got older in order to please the people she worked with. And while the short video was cute and funny, it really put the spotlight on African American hair, the corporate culture, and the workplace surrounding African American hair.
For another example, consider the story of 21-year-old Charles Craddock. Craddock was hired at a Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio (Company) and according to Craddock, he was told prior to moving into the park's dormitory that he had to cut his dreadlocks if he wanted to continue working for the Company. Craddock's story was contested by the Company, stating that Craddock's departure was due to his noncompliance with the company's grooming policy prior to moving into the dorms. However, Craddock recalled wearing dreadlocks during the skype interview and asking if his hair would be an issue. The interviewer responded that his dreadlocks would not be an issue as long as he kept them pinned up. Ultimately, Craddock refused to cut his hair and as a result, Craddock's employment with the Company was terminated.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) generally protects against racial discrimination regarding the terms and conditions of employment. However, there are no protections afforded to Craddock for refusing to cut his dreadlocks. Nor would there be any recourse for the young lady from the broadcasting company if she chose to wear her big curly hair As interpreted by the courts, Title VII does not prohibit discrimination against African Americans who choose to wear their natural hair textures and hairstyles akin to African culture, such as braids and dreadlocks. Because most workplace-grooming standards are neutral and are applied to all employees, the policies are not actionable by African American employees who face discrimination for wearing hairstyles akin to African culture.
Title VII provides the floor for protection. However, a state may provide greater protection under state law, similar to the District of Columbia Human Rights law, that provides protections against discrimination based on personal appearance. Because the federal law does not provide this protection, Florida should amend its civil rights statute to prohibit employment discrimination against African Americans who wear their natural hair textures and hairstyles akin to their culture. While the Florida Civil Rights Statute protects against discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, Florida courts follow Title VII, which does not protect against discrimination based on cultural differences. This paper proposes an amendment to the Florida Civil Rights Act to include a section that prohibits discrimination based on an employee's physical appearance.
This paper will focus on workplace-grooming standards that prohibit braids, dreadlocks, two-strand twists, and other cultural hairstyles worn by African Americans. This paper argues that these “neutral” standards discriminate against African American workers because they may be lawfully fired based on an employer's subjective view of what hairstyles are considered professional. Part I describes the workplace perceptions of African American hair. Part II provides an overview of how and why African Americans have conformed to societal hair standards and why more African Americans are wearing natural hairstyles. Part III explains how there are no protections against hairstyle discrimination under Title IV nor the Florida Civil Rights Statute. Part V analyzes case law permitting workplace discrimination for hairstyles akin to African culture. Part VI explains the history and biology of African American hair textures. Part VII discusses the District of Colombia's Human Rights Law as a model to address workplace discrimination based on physical appearance, including hairstyles. Finally, part VIII proposes that Florida enact legislation similar to District of Colombia's Human Rights Law to prohibit discrimination against physical appearance, including hairstyles.
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African Americans have made undeniable advances since 1865, the year African Americans gained their freedom from slavery. While African Americans are continuing to advance in the workplace, many of them face discrimination for wearing the hairstyles that they believe are best suited for their hair textures. Hairstyles that are akin to African culture are deeply rooted in African American communities and have been worn since the inception of this country. When Title VII was enacted, cultural differences between African Americans and Non-African Americans were not of consideration. As we hopefully move forward toward a more inclusive society, we must look at the disparity faced by individual groups in our society as important if we truly want to continue to “Make America Great.” With a statute in place to protect against discrimination based on a person's appearance, African American employees will no longer struggle with deciding between wearing natural hairstyles and taking care of their health. Individuals like the African American intern working for the North Carolina news station will not have to worry about being taken seriously on the job because of her decision to wear her hair in styles akin to African culture. Finally, people like Charles Craddock will not have to choose between wearing their hair in dreadlocks and pursuing employment opportunities.
Florida has the power to provide more protections than federal statutes. The Florida legislature should enact legislation to prohibit discrimination when wearing hairstyles akin to African culture. After all, these hairstyles are professional too!
April Williams is a 3L law student at FAMU Law School, graduating in May 2018.