Discrimination comes in many forms, and in sometimes surprising ways to those who have not experienced or reflected on what others might be going through. In this case, take a minute to think about something every human shares – hair.

In literature and mythology, hair symbolizes physical strength and virility; the virtues and properties of a person are said to be concentrated in their hair and nails. Flowing hair depicts freedom and looseness, while the unwilling removal of hair may symbolize castration. Hair is the external reflection of the soul.

The choice of how you want to look is a basic freedom, and one’s natural look is what it is and should be respected, and not the subject of joking, teasing, derogatory comments, discrimination, or retaliation.  This is, in fact, such an issue that the laws are changing, lawsuits are being filed, and employers are coming to realize that differences in natural hair and its arrangements are often closely associated with ethnic identities and should be respected and accommodated.

If you are not aware of the issue, here is a quick summary.

  • Hair policies and rules against natural hairstyles, cloaked in the alleged need to look “professional” at work, “clean” at school, etc. have a long and sordid history.
  • The US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that afro hairstyles were protected under Title VII. A highly qualified person was denied a promotion and told outright that she could never represent the company with an afro; the court held that “[t]he reference to the Afro hairstyle was merely the method by which the plaintiff’s supervisor allegedly expressed the employer’s racial discrimination” towards African Americans.
  • Other federal courts did not follow the lead of the Seventh Circuit and eroded the ruling, generally holding that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on “appearance”; the US Supreme Court has so far not ruled on the issue.
  • Legislatures in cities, counties, and states have taken up the issue and passed so-called Crown Acts in the past three years.

Here is the latest.

On March 4, 2021, an “Act Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” also known as the CROWN Act, became law in New Jersey.  The legislation bans natural hair discrimination in the workplace by amending the state’s anti-discrimination statute to define “race” as being “inclusive of ethnic traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” “Protective hairstyles” is defined to include, but not be limited to, “wigs, head wraps and hairstyles such as individual braids, cornrows, locks, twists, Bantu knots, afros and afro puffs.”

California, Colorado, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, and many cities and counties already have Crown-type laws, and the US Congress is considering a similar national law.

A nation-wide coalition, supported by Dove, the National Urban League, and many other prominent organizations and individuals, is supporting the effort to pass federal legislation and generally raise awareness of hair discrimination and promote solutions.

Examples of hair discrimination:

  • Job offer rescinded after applicant refused to cut her afro;
  • Media company forcing on-air personality to straighten her hair;
  • High school wrestling officials forced a competitor to cut his dreadlocks or be disqualified from a tournament;
  • Six-year-old boy refused entrance on first day of school due to “no dreadlock” policy;
  • Two high school seniors suspended just before graduation for “too long dreadlocks.”

So, if you or a loved one has been denied an opportunity or promotion, have been harassed because of their hairstyle, or even outright instructed to cut their hair, it may well be actionable, depending on your location and the facts of your case. 

At Pelton Graham we are well aware of the laws regarding hair discrimination, and the excuses frequently put forward by employers or schools in their defense. Contact us today for a no-cost consultation by telephone, video call, or office visit to discuss the facts of your case.

Photo by Ono Kosuki from Pexels