In many workplaces, certain standards of professional appearance must be maintained. This is understandable. Dress codes — or wardrobe guidelines — are often put in place. And, of course, there are hygienic requirements. That brings us to the case of Chastity Jones, a black woman whose job offer for CMS, an insurance-claims processing company in Alabama, was rescinded because her dreadlocked hair “tend[s] to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about,” said her potential employer, according to the Cut.
Dreadlocks, which form naturally from matted hair, are a chosen hairstyle for many people. And apparently it’s perfectly within the law to fire or refuse to hire someone based solely on the fact that she or he wears the controversial hairdo, which dates back (at least) to ancient Egypt.
Jones found out about this curious legal loophole when she decided to fight the decision and turned to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which agreed to represent Jones and subsequently took the company to court on grounds of discrimination, the Cut reports. The Commission backed up its argument by referencing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer:
1. to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
2. to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Despite no mention of hairstyles being grounds for a company to refuse to hire someone, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of CMS, justifying its decision not to hire Jones based solely on her locs, says the Cut. Their justification was that dreads are not an inherently unchangeable characteristic of black people, so CMS’s decision does not qualify, legally, as discrimination based on race. Essentially, the court ruled, no hairstyle can be inextricably tied to a race or ethnicity in the eyes of the law.
And Jones didn’t even make it past the hiring process. Last month, a woman in Manhattan claims to have been fired from her job at the St. Regis hotel for having dreadlocks, despite the fact that she rocked the ‘do through the entire hiring process. Rachel Sakabo said she was “floored” when she got the dream job, but even more so when she was let go two weeks after her first day. Previously, her manager had asked her to take out her “braids,” to which Sakabo responded, “They’re aren’t braids; they’re locs,” according to the publication, but the manager replied, “Well, can you unlock them?” Sakabo even offered to shave her head to keep her job.
Though Sakabo didn’t have concrete proof of discrimination like Jones did, she told BuzzFeed News at the time, “I don’t think I was rightfully let go. I definitely think it has to do with the fact that I’m black and I have dreads.” Though she said she planned to contact the Department of Labor and Starwood Hotels, the parent company of the St. Regis, she hadn’t pursued legal action at the time Yahoo Beauty covered the story.
As the Cut points out, dreadlocks have been highly controversial in the fashion industry, most recently during New York Fashion Week, when Marc Jacobs created a firestorm by including white models in pastel dreads in his runway show, with accusations of cultural appropriation upstaging Jacobs’s actual collection. The argument is that it’s highly insensitive to appropriate another culture’s hairstyle and “wear it as a costume,” essentially.
But apparently when a black person wears a style that is largely associated with her culture, she’s punished for it. And, as Jones’s case demonstrates, there isn’t even any legal recourse.