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It’s Still Legal to Ban Dreadlocks in the Workplace

The Supreme Court could review a case about the bias against dreadlocks, but it won’t.

The US Supreme Court will not review a case related to a ban on dreadlocks in the workplace.
Photo: Getty Images/Blend Images

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Workplace bans on dreadlocks still aren’t considered discriminatory. Even though they’re closely associated with blackness, federal courts say dreads are just a hairstyle and hairstyles can be changed. But for nearly a decade, Chastity Jones, an African-American woman, has been trying to get the courts to agree that racial bias may shape corporate grooming policies. On Monday, the Supreme Court denied her the chance to argue that the company that told her to ditch her dreads infringed on her rights.

Jones’s case dates back to 2010. That year, Catastrophe Management Solutions in Mobile, Alabama, offered Jones a job on one condition: She had to get rid of her locs. According to Jones, a white human resources manager told her that they violated company policy because dreads “tend to get messy.” CMS’s policy didn’t specifically mention dreadlocks, only that employee hairstyles must reflect a “business/professional image” and not be “excessive.”

When Jones decided to keep her locs, the company withdrew its job offer. So she headed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed a lawsuit in 2013. She’s been fighting, unsuccessfully, for justice ever since.

The first blow came in 2014, when an Alabama federal judge decided that civil rights law only applies to unalterable traits like race and sex.

“A hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic,” US District Judge Charles R. Butler Jr. wrote.

He went on to make an argument comparing hairstyles to hair texture.

“A hairstyle is not inevitable and immutable just because it is a reasonable result of hair texture, which is an immutable characteristic,” he stated. “Title XII does not protect against discrimination based on traits, even a trait that has socio-cultural racial significance.”

The judge added that a dreadlocks ban wasn’t race-based since white people with the style would be affected too.

A long and complicated legal maze has followed Butler’s ruling. In 2016, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision. The following year, that court declined to have its bench review the case. And in 2018, the EEOC missed a March deadline to have the case reviewed before the Supreme Court. The government agency, which sued CMS on Jones’s behalf, was the plaintiff in the case. This prevented Jones from appealing to the high court on her own.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has tried to change that. In April, it petitioned the Supreme Court to allow Jones to intervene in the lawsuit. This week, the court decided not to, allowing Judge Butler’s ruling to stand.

Actress Zendaya wearing dreadlocks
Actress Zendaya wearing dreadlocks at the 2015 Oscars.
Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

While Butler’s ruling may be legally sound, it’s not necessarily fair. Yes, people of any race may wear their hair in the style, but locs are disproportionately worn by people of African descent. Can locs be “messy”? Sure. So can all hair types and hairstyles. But the human resources manager Jones encountered seemed to think that locs are inherently “messy,” no matter how they’re groomed or styled, or who’s wearing them.

That perception derives from long-running stereotypes about black people and their natural hair. Be it in schools, the workplace, the military, or even the red carpet, traditional black hairstyles, such as locs, braids, cornrows, and Afros have come under attack. When Zendaya stepped on the red carpet with dreadlocks in 2015, “Fashion Police” correspondent Giuliana Rancic said that the young actress looked like she “smells like patchouli oil. Or weed.”

The idea that naturally textured black hair is unacceptable in some way is firmly entrenched in the Western imagination, so much so that Jones felt it necessary to note how she maintains her locs.

“The question is whether an employer can refuse to hire a qualified black woman with well-kept natural [dreadlocks], because of the stereotypical belief that [dreadlocks] ‘tend to get messy,’ when [dreadlocks] are physiologically, culturally, and historically associated with African Americans,” Jones said.

She pointed out that the Supreme Court has recognized the role stereotypes play in sex discrimination cases like Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and should apply in cases related to racial discrimination as well. In Price Waterhouse, “A female lawyer said her supervisors repeatedly told her she was too aggressive and needed to walk, talk, and dress more ‘femininely’ if she wanted to get a promotion,” Vox reported. “The Court ruled that gender stereotypes at work can be a form of intentional sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, even though femininity is mutable.” If gender stereotypes can be a form of discrimination, then racialized stereotypes about hair should be deemed a form of discrimination too.

In a year when the film Black Panther showed natural black hairdos in all their glory, it’s shameful that African Americans still face stereotypes about traditional styles and textures. This is doubly true in light of recent research that has found the products in chemical hair straighteners likely cause cancer and reproductive health problems. Black men and women should not have to alter their hair or cut it off to conform to white workplace standards. Natural hairstyles like dreadlocks aren’t inherently messy, smelly, or otherwise offensive, just because they make some white people uncomfortable.