Kinky Locks – too Naughty for Corporate America

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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When Jones refused to cut her locks, the company rescinded their offer.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.

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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.

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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.

73 thoughts on “Kinky Locks – too Naughty for Corporate America

  1. I appreciate your eloquence in calling out social, racial and political injustices. You are a gifted writer and important voice in the hope for change! I am eager to see more of your posts in the future!

    1. Thank you so much Ashlee! Very kind words. I’m flattered. I do hope the article forces people to reconsider how their biased actions/decisions influence entire groups for the worst.

  2. Great Blog. I read this story as well. I also read this story to my children. I love my locs and they shall not be removed. I feel that wearing locs in the workplace has nothing to do with your experience or education when working on the job. I was at the doctor’s office and someone mentioned this article to me and i told them this one line My locs are my Glory. They will not be removed.

    1. Thank you! You should definitely hang on to them, and thank you so much for sharing it with your kids. I hope I helped to teach them a valuable lesson. Do they have locks as well?

      Did someone show you this article in the doctor’s office, or the article about the lady?

      Thanks again! Do drop by anytime. Now following your blog. 🙂

      1. My daughter has been natural since birth. My Son does not have locs but myself and two of my brothers have locs. I had my locs for 11 years now. I read the actually read the article on fb from one of my sister friends who had locs as well and was working in corporate until she started her own business. The nurse at the doctor’s office asked me my thoughts on it before administering a shot in my arm…we discuss the article. I came across your blog on WordPress as a recommendation. I read your blog and viewed this article. I said I had to follow you and your blogs. Thank you for following my blog. I appreciate it so much. I will most definitely drop anytime. I hope you drop my blog anytime as well. 😊

      2. You’ve made my day. It’s really good to know that I’m reaching the people I want to reach: people who can benefit from these discussions. Thank you so much for reading and following.

        I’m also glad to know you haven’t chemically altered your daughter’s hair. I begged for mine to be altered as a teen and then ultimately regretted it. I’m so happy to have my hair locked in its natural form now. It was the best decision I ever made. 🙂

      3. Awww Thank you so much. Yes you have and you have definitely reached me 😊. I had my hair was chemically process from age 13 to 25. After the birth of my son. I said chemical be gone. Been free since. I love how I look and feel as a natural woman. It speaks VOLUMES being natural. I never asked my daughter if she wanted to have chemicals in her hair. She does wear attachments and said she don’t want any. Her hairs is thick, healthy and extremely long. Thank you for making my day as well ☺

      4. I’m glad to know she’s thriving. I hope she stays that way. It’s a good time to be a black/mixed teenager, I think. The natural hair revolution is in motion, and there’s not as much pressure to be stick thin, like there was in my time. And of course, she has a great mother as an example to teach her to love herself as she is 🙂

      5. Yes. I totally agree. I instill in her to love herself. I tell her she is Beautiful. I tell her to love her body. She was made unique like her mother. The natural hair revolution is definitely in motion and i love it.

  3. This is a great read. I know in Canada, we are working on improving workplace discrimination and biased hiring laws and practices, but there is still such a long way to go.

  4. I just think it’s wrong for people/companies to enforce what they think is appropriate in general. Who wants to look like the next person and the next… And who is anyone to say what is right and wrong for a work place?

  5. Unfortunately, this is only the land of the free as long as one conforms to the ideals of the dominant group. That is not ok to me. I believe that our diversity is our strength. I believe that perfection (as defined by white-european-descended america) is unattainable (even for white-european-descended america) and to strive for it makes one boring.
    Of course, I get that it’s easy for me to say such a thing. So I try to force myself out of my shy shell and tell women they are beautiful. I believe women should support each other and celebrate each other (and our differences).

    I know that doesn’t address the problem discussed here. As for that issue, I find myself far more willing to spend money with companies where the people do NOT all look like me, with companies who’s advertising features a diverse array of people. I also got registered to vote, because my vote can help shape the future of the supreme court and affect change at the local level.

    1. Hey, thanks for dropping by and reading. Thanks even more for the powerful comment!

      You’re right. Even Whites can’t attain that standard of beauty, so imagine the uphill battle for everyone else. It’s truly a sad state.

      I’m glad you registered to vote against misogyny and xenophobia. America has taken a turn for the worst in such a short space of time. The next person in the oval office becomes that much more important now to its fate.

      I’m not really sure when diversity stopped becoming an asset to America, but my guess would be around the recession…

  6. Have you read about the racial tribunals recently opened up in Brazil for affirmative action purposes? Slippery slope but such an interesting and fascinating topic. How do you create labels and segment people so that you can actually make a conscious effort to bring equality to a group that has been left behind, without making

    As I work extra hard to change this perception in corporate America (and one of the many reasons I moved to HR at a company that is already focused on D&I but still a little old fashioned about the subtle ways we hurt our own cause), I quite enjoyed this post…. I was actually asked to color my hair something more corportey before taking this job and after talking the job I could not help but state – after I basically did something heroic for them – now imagine if I had done it with my super hair on, we would be on fire! (though clearly it was the suit, not the brain, heart and hard work that did it) ;).

    1. I hadn’t heard of that case, but thanks for sharing. It is indeed a slippery slope, and also a thin line to walk. I wish there were more people like you in corporate trying to make a change.

      I’ve removed piercings and changed hair colours for corporate. I felt it was ridiculous since I didn’t work with customers face to face, but that I can understand. That was a rule for everyone. It’s just so much worse when racial and ethnic groups become singled out.

  7. Fantastic point you made on how the law is skewered EVRYWHERE. I’m from India, and a lawyer, and I know of incidents here that have equally questioned our faith in the law – primarily one on why some people get away with it (read ‘haves’) while some people can not (the ‘have nots’)…. Your post also brings to mind the Central Park Joggers Case in New York where the concerned 5 teenagers were wrongly implicated because of racial stereotypes.

    Sometimes one begins to wonder why the law is bent on either beating around the bush or conversely splitting hairs – like in the Judge’s quote you’ve highlighted in your post. To me it just seems that the American Judicial perception on ‘race being only biological’ seems rather redundant when today there is no pure ‘race’ because people, their characteristics and their traditions have evolved from what their ancestors had, and it is THIS synthesis that the law should protect, not the obscured idea of what a race should be.

    1. You make a very good point about how race has evolved over the years. I hadn’t thought of that, since America kind of operates on a one drop rule.

      You bring added insight as a lawyer. But it’s sad to hear that this is such a problem everywhere.

      1. It very much is… In fact we Indians have a lot of legal woes. At least in America you guys actually look at the law for redressal. In India going to the court is the last resort and most just avoid it altogether. That’s the state of things here 🙁

  8. Great post, as usual.

    Law is about affording it, sadly. Ever heard of the case of South African Paralympic medalist, Oscar Pistorius who killed his girlfriend of Valentine’s Day?

    I know that the good shouldn’t let the evil happen but I, personally, get so tired just thinking about what happens in the real world and I give up because fighting the system seems like a lost cause. I’ve not expressed this openly except to a few people close to me but I am seriously convinced that the whole world is controlled but a handful of individuals and they place their puppets in every country to make us think we are free.

    I don’t know if I should laugh (to not cry) or sigh…

    1. Thanks again Anne. I did hear of that case. There was definitely a lot of controversy around it. I could never decide if I felt he was guilty or not. I don’t think I followed the case up to the end though. What was the final ruling?

      Power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few people, so who knows? I want to believe there is some democracy in the political process, so I do hope that you’re not right about that.

      1. Power and wealth yes, and “importance” it seems, with the two men being representatives of their respective countries in the Olympics / Paralympics. I sure hope it’s only me thinking of some “interesting” conspiracy.
        I gave up on that case, too. It was upsetting, perhaps just because I’m a woman. Or the thought that it could have happened to any of us. It was too technical and the DA had its shortcomings and the sentence was a short stint in prison. He was allowed out then there was an appeal and it was a slightly better sentence but the judge “felt sorry” or something for him. So disheartening. But like we already know, the best lawyer wins. You would have been a great defender of the truth! 😊

      2. Haha. You’re the second person to tell me I would have been a good lawyer after this post. Perhaps I would have. Thank you.

        I do think the whole dependence on a lawyer’s brilliance undermines the justice system though.

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