Kinky Locks – too Naughty for Corporate America

Even in the corporate world, many of us are forced to ditch our natural hair, because corporate thinks our kinky locks are too naughty for regular business operations…

We are taught from an early age through dolls, school rules, corporate expectations, and the media that our genetically gifted natural hair is not sufficient, fashionable, or appropriate…

And then imagine the overwhelming pressure to meet these expectations. We quite literally get chemical burns from relaxers and heat burns from press combs just trying to keep up.

If this quote sounds familiar to you, then you’ve likely read my post, Translating Becky with the Good Hair. In that article, I dissected the meaning of good or bad hair, and put it into cultural and historical context.

Having fully explored the topic from all angles over a series of posts, I laid it to rest with no intention of picking it up again. That was, however, until I learned of the ruling allowing employers to discriminate against Black workers for how they wear their hair, with no legal repercussions.

So… it’s time to drag my readers through the mud all over again. But all things considered – I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

Chastity’s Story

For those of you who didn’t hear of the ruling, let’s begin with the background story involving a Black woman by the name of Chastity Jones.

In 2010, Jones applied for a job at Catastrophe Management Solutions in Mobile, Alabama. During an interview for the position, a White human resources manager told her that her locks were against company policy, and she would have to get rid of them. She reportedly said:

…they tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.

When Jones refused to cut her locks, the company rescinded their offer. She then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as she reasonably suspected the company chose not to hire her because of how she wore her hair.

In 2013, the EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Chastity Jones. The suit claimed that terminating the job offer because of her hairstyle was a form of racial discrimination. Why? Because:

…dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent. 

The EEOC further argued that race is nothing but a ‘social construct’ of which physical and genetic characteristics are just pieces of the pie. Cultural traits, like how we dress and wear our hair, is also a part of our racial identity.

The federal court in Alabama dismissed the claims, so in 2015, the EEOC filed an appeal.

The final ruling issued in 2016, stated that race was based purely on unchangeable physical characteristics. Thus, those who wear dreads do so by choice, and can be discriminated against for jobs without any legal repercussions for the companies involved.

U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan said of the ruling:

There have been some calls for courts to interpret Title VII more expansively by eliminating the biological conception of ‘race’ and encompassing cultural characteristics associated with race…

As far as we can tell, every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race.

Drawing Parameters

Jordan actually makes a good point. Yes, I know – it’s not the answer you thought I’d have. But if you interpret the rules literally, then of course race should be based on physical features.

But that’s not really the point of the law, is it?

Were anti-discrimination laws put in place to draw the parameters of race? Or were they put in place to protect racial and ethnic minorities from discrimination based on Eurocentric principles that have nothing to do with our qualifications and work ethic?

The Interpretation Bias

Let me digress for just a moment – I promise you, there’s a point to this.

When I was 17 years old, my biological father lost legal custody of me, and a restraining order was filed. At the hearing, the judge told me:

I don’t know who to believe – your father or your grandmother. But either way, this is about you. You’re only 17 years old, and technically it’s not legal for you to live on your own, but I’m granting you the right to do so anyway. 

The judge had carefully considered laws meant to protect minors, and granted me an exception. It did not matter that I was 10 months away from an 18th birthday. It mattered only that I was safe, because I now had the freedom to live as an adult, and protect my own interests.

Her decision spared me from a dysfunctional and abusive home, and from becoming another female statistic in a Third World country.

The Perks of Privilege 

In America, this rarely happens, unless of course, you’re a privileged member of society – like a Brock Turner of sorts.

For those of you who may have forgotten, Brock Turner sexually assaulted a 23-year-old woman behind a dumpster. For his crime, he faced up to 14 years in prison. The prosecution asked for six years. The result was a six month sentence, of which Turner served only three.

Why? Because the judge believed:

A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him… I think he will not be a danger to others.

The judge, along with Turner’s family, also believed that a long prison sentence would upset Turner’s training, and his ability to compete in the Olympics.

At this point, you’re likely wondering where I’m going with this. The answer is simple.

In America, when judges want to protect a privileged class, they have no problems bending the rules to make exceptions for personal ambitions and careers, no matter how heinous the crimes.

When it’s a whole minority’s job eligibility, and dignity, that’s in question, court ruling after court ruling stands by the convenient, literal interpretation of old laws. The actual purpose of the laws… be damned.

The Point

A lot of people may say, well the solution is simple: if you want the job, cut your dreadlocks. How is this any different from tattoos and piercings on an employee working the front desk at a bank?

But for many of us, there is more depth to why we wear dreadlocks that supersede any fashion trend. It is as the EEOC described: a big part of our racial identity, and the way many of us choose to embrace it.

My decision to lock my hair, for instance, came after decades of fighting a losing battle to make my kinky hair conform to Eurocentric ideals of what it means to be beautiful, professional, appropriate.  I thought by embracing my heritage, I had finally won – apparently I did not.

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This isn’t just about dreadlocks, or even just an issue centered on Blacks. What other forms of ethnic discrimination will we allow next?

Will it be okay not to hire a Jewish man because he wore a Kippa to an interview? What about a Muslim woman who wears a hijab? Or an Indian woman who wears a bindi to symbolise her marriage, instead of a 10 carat diamond ring?

Are White people, and White cultural norms the only appropriate fit for corporate America? Where do we draw the line?

At the end of the day, this is always a tough decision to make. But where the line is drawn for now, only makes me more anxious to enter the world of work as a Black expatriate in America. I worry now that employers won’t care about my first class honours, or my ten years of content strategy experience.

Like Chastity Jones, the focus will be on my natural hair: an innocent and harmless expression of my cultural values as a Jamaican, and as a Mixed Black woman.

I thought this was the land of the free… but perhaps America calls for far more bravery than I originally surmised.

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72 Comments Add yours

  1. Mabel Kwong says:

    Such a powerful post, and it is interesting to hear about the legal definitions of race in the States. Life is contantly changing, just as how culture is always changing – and hair certainly is a big part of our culture and the values that we believe in. in Australia, it is rare to see anyone with dreadlocks in the corporate world. It does say something similar too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Mabel. The legal definition of race here could use some updating. Sad to hear that Australia doesn’t seem too “forgiving” of dreadlocks either. In Jamaica, there are quite a few people in corporate with dreadlocks, though they also prefer when we straighten our hair.

      Like

      1. Mabel Kwong says:

        That is so nice to hear in Jamaica where dreadlocks are acceptable. The only time I’ve seen dreadlocks in the workplace is in the not-for-profit sector. Some corporate offices here are accepting of tattoos and piercings, though, which is encouraging.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well dreadlocks are mostly acceptable in Jamaica, but not preferred. We still have some strong British roots that push Eurocentric ideologies. The interesting thing however is that this comes from fellow Blacks.

        Even so, there is a grand respect for women like myself who embrace our natural heritage. So much so that there’s an informal term/title for that in Jamaica. Men refer to us as “Empress”.

        I’ve seen a few corporate folks with dreads in America, mostly female, but not many. I haven’t seen anyone in corporate with tattoos and piercings. For jobs that happen behind the scenes, I don’t get why appearance is still such a big deal.

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      3. Mabel Kwong says:

        “there is a grand respect for women like myself who embrace our natural heritage.” And I respect you too for going out there and doing what you love doing on your own. Keep doing what you do. We can be anyone regardless of how we look, and more people need to realise that.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Thank you Mabel. You’re absolutely right. Our appearance does not dictate our qualifications or work ethic. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. naturalnam says:

    Not right. i really enjoyed reading this

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Hopefully things get better, but I’m not optimistic under the current administration.

      Like

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