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Women Of Color’s Hair & Workplace Discrimination

In general, any form of race discrimination in the workplace is quickly addressed by many employers. But there are always a few who fail to see the proverbial writing on the wall. However, women of color have faced one form of discrimination that is often ignored or even outright disbelieved. There is a continued stereotyping of their natural hairstyles as “unprofessional,” which can lead in turn to negative job outcomes. If you have experienced discrimination based on your hair, know that you are not alone—and you may have recourse.

Intent vs. Impact

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits race-based discrimination in employment, from hiring to firing. However, the law is often upheld in a very outdated and formal manner, choosing only to rule against discriminatory policies when they show deliberate malice. In other words, when there is disparate intent to exclude or harm a specific group and to enrich another. There may be no malicious intent in a policy that turns out to be discriminatory, but it is discriminatory just the same.

Disparate intent is very different from disparate impact. It is disparate impact that often affects women of color in the workplace, because very few employers will deliberately and maliciously discriminate. However, it is very possible for an employer to craft a policy that causes harm to a specific group of people—in this case, women of color—without intending to do so. One of the most common ways this happens is workplace grooming policies. For example, a facially neutral grooming policy banning ‘Afro’ type hairstyles might in theory apply to white people, but it will affect people of color (especially women) much more.

A Formalist Approach To Race

Contemporary notions of race are very different than those that were in force in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. However, recent court decisions show that the judiciary has not learned to adapt. The 11th Circuit case of EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Systems [CMS] (2016) was a case involving a woman of color seeking a job with CMS, though her job offer was rescinded after she was asked to cut off her locs (which she refused to do). The 11th Circuit ruled that no discrimination had occurred, because there was no disparate intent to single out women of color from its (allegedly) neutral grooming policy—even though women of color are nonetheless disparately impacted by this policy.

The court argued that while hair itself is an immutable characteristic. They argued that the hair style itself is not immutable, because it can be changed. But this betrays a lack of understanding of both race itself and of the interplay between race and other characteristics. Often, the only hairstyles deemed “professional” or “appropriate” in the workplace are those which mirror whiteness, with only the natural hairstyles common to those of African descent deemed “messy” or “extreme.” To place this burden on women of color is unjust in a lot of ways—but as of this writing, the courts do not seem to see it.

Call An Employment Discrimination Lawyer Today

If you are a woman of color and have been discriminated against due to your hairstyle, please know that it is a tangible form of discrimination. You are not being unreasonable. Contacting a knowledgeable employment discrimination lawyer is a good idea, so that you can hopefully get some answers to your questions. Attorney A. Christopher Potts has experience with these types of cases. The firm of Hitchcock & Potts will work hard for you. Contact our office today to schedule an appointment.

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