Why Employers Can Discriminate Against Dreadlocks

September 20th 2016

Tricia Tongco

A federal court just ruled that it's not racial discrimination for an employer to ask a person to get rid of or change her dreadlocks.

The ruling came from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving Chastity Jones, a Black woman who sued after a white human resources manager at her employer, Alabama-based insurance company CMS, told her to change her dreadlock hairstyle because they "tend to get messy."

Once the ruling was released, people on Twitter were not happy.

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against CMS on Jones' behalf, arguing that CMS' 'race-neutral grooming policy' disproportionately targeted African-Americans for a common hairstyle they wear based on their unique hair texture," Vox reported.

The appeals court ruled 3-0 ruling last Thursday that the company's action did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits only discrimination on the basis of "immutable characteristics," such as "race, color, or natural origin," the court found: A "hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic."

The court asserted that no hairstyle is intrinsically linked to a race, since hair can be changed.

The ruling comes as dreadlocks entered the spotlight during Marc Jacobs' recent New York Fashion Week show in which white models donned rainbow-hued dreadlocks. ATTN: previously reported that Jacobs' received intense backlash on social media, with critics accusing him of cultural appropriation.

The designer posted a problematic response in an Instagram comment that sounded similar to the controversial court ruling:

"And all who cry 'cultural appropriation' or whatever nonsense about any race of skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner - funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded…Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it."

But critics on Twitter argued that Jacobs and the federal appeals court ignore the politically charged context of Black hair.

The New York Times previously weighed in on the cultural pressure to relax Black hair:

"Getting 'good hair' often means transforming one's tightly coiled roots; but it is also more freighted, for many African-American women and some men, than simply a choice about grooming. Straightening hair has been perceived as a way to be more acceptable to certain relatives, as well as to the white establishment."