Banning Dreadlocks Isn’t Racial Discrimination, Federal Appeals Court Says


It looks like natural hair is still a no-no in the workplace.

The 11th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Friday that prohibiting employees from wearing dreadlocks at work isn’t exactly considered race-based discrimination.

According to The New York Times, the ruling stems from a 2013 lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against an Alabama-based claims processing company that refused to hire a Black woman unless she agreed to cut off her dreads.

The suit was filed on behalf of Chastity Jones, an African-American applicant who applied for a customer service representative position at Catastrophe Management Solutions in 2010. Court documents state that the company initially hired Jones but then rescinded their offer when she refused to cut her dreadlocks.

Jones was informed by human resources manager Jeannie Wilson that her hairstyle was in violation of CMS’ grooming policy which states, “All personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines. . . . [H]airstyle should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable[.]”

Wilson also mentioned to Jones that dreadlocks “tend to get messy,” according to court documents. “I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about,” she said.

In the suit, the EEOC argued that banning dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes racial discrimination because “dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” The commission went on to assert that race is a social construct and has no biological definition; that race is not defined by or limited to “immutable physical characteristics; and that race encompasses cultural traits related to race or ethnicity. That includes grooming standards as well.

CMS vehemently denied the EEOC’s claims that their grooming policy was discriminatory and asserted their personal appearance standards are actually race neutral.

While federal law prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of immutable traits like race or national origin, these traits do not encompass cultural hairstyles like dreads. That small detail is ultimately what lead Atlanta-based circuit court Judge Adalberto Jordan to dismiss the EEOC’s discrimination case.

“The district court dismissed the initial complaint, and concluded that the proposed amended complaint was futile, because ‘Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics, such as race, color, or natural origin,’ and ‘[a] hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic,’ ” Jordan wrote in the appellate opinion.

However, the circuit judge did acknowledge that definitions of race can and do change over time.

“We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that, in the last several decades, 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,” he wrote.

According to The New York Times, a spokeswoman for the EEOC expressed dissatisfaction with the judge’s ruling, adding that the commission is currently “reviewing its options” to appeal the case.

The EEOC v. CMS case comes at a time when natural hair styles are taking center stage due to the fact that more Black folk are choosing to don their naturally curly textures. But the natural wave has met some opposition, as schools and businesses impose limitations on how Black people can or can’t wear their hair.

For example, students at an all-girls high school in Pretoria, South Africa staged a protest after school officials banned afros and other natural hairstyles. Some teachers even urged students to straighten their tresses using heat or chemicals.

Atlanta Black Star reports that the students’ demonstration proved effective, after MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi temporarily lifted the school’s ban on natural hair.

“There will be no learner that will be victimized purely because of their hairstyle until the School Governing Body have finalized a new code of conduct that deals specifically with this issue,” the MEC said.

The U.S. military recently rolled back restrictions on Black hairstyles as well. According to ABS, Army, Navy and Air Force service members are now allowed to wear their hair in two strand twists. The width of acceptable braids was also increased.

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