For many Americans, hair isn’t “just hair.” It has the power to get a person through doors and block them from an opportunity. While many companies are building diverse workspaces with a more relaxed dress code, welcoming everything from sleeve tattoos to alternative hair colors, the vast majority continue to uphold policies exemplifying gross discrimination against natural hair. Hair discrimination is when someone is mistreated, not only for their appearance but specifically for their characteristics: their hair. Under the guise of “grooming policy,” it is a conduit for racial discrimination.
From offices to classrooms, natural Black hair and hairstyles (braids, locs, twists, and knots) and Native American braids have been policed for decades. According to Corinn Jackson of Littler, “Black women can be particularly impacted by certain dress codes and grooming policies. Indeed, one recent study found that Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work, and Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home because of their hair.” A 2017 poll conducted by NPR reports a third of Native Americans have suffered from discrimination at school and in the workplace. Instances of discrimination often include not being paid or promoted fairly and being fired or, in the case of students, having their hair cut for wearing it in traditional Native American braids.
Modifications are usually required at the workplace requiring hair to be short—eliminating the symbolism of strength in Native American long hair—or smoothly tucked away—asking Black people to comply with Eurocentric standards. Many instances have shown gross discrimination over natural hair at work and school. In 1981, Renee Rogers took American Airlines to court because the company demanded she not wear her hair in braids. The court sided with the airline, stating that braids were not an immutable racial characteristic but a simple work policy. In 2010, Chastity Jones accepted a job offer for a customer service position. When she refused to follow a work attire policy that would require her to cut off her locs, the company rescinded its job offer, justifying its reasoning to Jones by saying, “they tend to get messy.” In 2018, a referee forced a high-school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks right before a match. As the investigation continued, he was barred from further officiating, but the high school student remained a victim of an unnecessary act. More recently, a Native American boy had his hair cut against his will by his classmates.