A hairstyle can reflect or be part of a sincerely held religious belief or practice, and may thus require a reasonable accommodation by  employers.  But can a hairstyle be a racial characteristic under Title VII, even if it is not part of a religious belief or practice, and thus be out of bounds for regulation on this ground?

Recently, an Alabama court said “no” in a case where an employee had blond hair dreaded in “neat curls,” or “curllocks,” and claimed not that this was part of her religion but was a racial characteristic.

Court: Title VII Does Not Protect Against Discrimination Based On Traits With Socio-Cultural Racial Significance

On March 29th we discussed this Alabama case, and quoted the EEOC, which brought the case, as saying that:   “Generally, there are racial distinctions in the natural texture of black and non-black hair. The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks. Hair grooming decisions and policies (and their implementation) have to take into consider­ation differing racial traits, and cannot penalize blacks for grooming their hair in a manner that does not meet normative standards for other races.”

The Court disagreed with EEOC:  “A hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic. … A hairstyle is not inevitable and immutable just because it is a reasonable result of hair texture, which is an immutable characteristic. … Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on traits, even a trait that has socio-cultural racial significance.”

Readers Comment

We posted the comments of a good  number of readers, which reflects the level of interest in this issue.   See our posts of  March 31st, and April 8th.

On April 3rd, we posted a comment from Tasha Robinson, an HR manager in the Atlanta area.  She said that:  “This is an interesting case.  I just read about the recently released grooming guidelines within one of the armed forces and how there is a petition because the new guidelines prohibit certain hairstyles that several black women have been accustomed to wearing. It makes you wonder who makes the decision about what is appropriate and/or professional. For me it’s like someone telling me I have to wear a suit to work … why.  My performance doesn’t change if I’m dressed business or business casual … or if I wear jeans on Friday.”

New York Times Article:  “America Has Always Had Trouble With Black Hair”

Now comes an interesting opinion piece published in the New York Time yesterday by Ayana Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, entitled “When Black Hair Is Against the Rules,” which discusses these new grooming guidelines in the armed forces.  Read in conjunction with the Alabama court’s decision, and our readers’ comments, it nicely frames a growing debate.

The NYT writers contend that “America has always had trouble with black hair,” and report that the US Army just released an updated appearance and grooming policy, known as AR 670-1, for which they say that “[n]o distinctions are made for race or ethnicity, only gender, in that the regulations regarding hair are divided between women and men. But it’s not hard to infer that certain sections pertain specifically to black women, since they refer to hairstyles like cornrows, braids, twists and dreadlocks, severely limiting or banning them outright.”

They note that “[t]he bias against black hair is as old as America itself,” and go back in history to the 18th century when “British colonists classified African hair as closer to sheep wool than human hair.”

They conclude that “[t]he argument isn’t that the Army does not have the right to enforce a conservative code — this is the Army, after all — but that it must consider the diversity of hair textures.”

A fascinating addition to this debate.