Natural hair in the workplace sparks legal debate in the black community

Natural hair in the workplace sparks legal debate in the black community (WHAM Photo)

Rochester, N.Y. - In September, a federal court gave all employers the right to ban dreadlocks in the workplace.

The decision came down in the U.S. Court of Appeals that sided with Catastrophe Management Solutions, despite claims from a black woman who says she was fired from a call-center job when she refused to cut off her dreadlocks.

The Alabama-based company claimed dreadlocks are against a race-neutral grooming policy. The federal court gave them that right in a September ruling.

“The court is much more comfortable opining on whether or not there’s discrimination based on a characteristic that you’re born with, as opposed to a choice you make with your hairstyle or cultural norms or values at the time,” said Rochester employment lawyer Justin Cordello.

The case, which has been in play for six years, reminded Rochester native Reenah Golden of a job she lost years ago.

“There was a lot less tolerance, a lot less, including me in the social aspect of working in corporate America,” Golden said. “We know, business is relationships.”

SUNY Geneseo professor Kristen Gentry feels accepted in her community, but she can sense the skeptics.

“There are perceptions like—do you wash your hair?” said Gentry. “How often do you wash your hair? Is it dirty? Does it smell?”

Most of the time, Gentry says she laughs it off. Tokeya Graham, a professor of English at Monroe County Community College, says she uses that dialogue to teach.

“Prior to us coming on these shores, we had our own ways of cultural expression,” Graham said. “It was our own ways of pride and acceptance.”

Black hair, whether it is dreaded or in an afro, is a big part of that cultural self-expressions. Barbara Williams went chemical-free five years ago with help from her stylist, Sandra Faison.

“It’s just freeing for me,” Williams said.

“I think moderation is the key with everything, and keep in mind who you are representing,” Faison said. “Keep in mind what brand you’re trying to attract and the company you work for.”

But some are finding that hair is less about what you see growing on the outside, but rather is more about how the person you see is growing on the inside.

“I’m proud to go out and say this is my hair,” Gentry said. “It hearkened images of Angela Davis and Maya Angelou and other powerful black women in the sense of walking in their footsteps. It made me hold my head up higher and be prouder, and I think I owe a lot of that to my hair journey.”

Lawyers tell 13WHAM that discrimination cases are challenging in court because some civil laws don’t define what race is. That lack of clarity makes it hard to connect hair to a race, and thus discrimination.

The trend to go natural isn’t going anywhere. Experts say more mainstream cosmetics companies are also investing and marketing natural products.

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