A Hairstyle Is Not A Civil Right: The City’s Commission On Civil Rights is Taking The Wrong Approach To A Real Problem

(This opinion editorial was first published in New York Daily News on March 17, 2019.)

Richard Thompson Ford

When Chastity Jones applied for a job in a call center in 2010, she was told she’d have to cut her dreadlocks to comply with a dress code that required a “professional image.” Instead she sued for race discrimination, claiming that her hair was a central part of her racial identity. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and Jones joined a long line of black women who sued and lost over strict dress codes that prohibited their preferred hairstyles.

This may be about to change, at least in the Big Apple. The city’s Commission on Human Rights recently announced that it will protect “the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic or cultural identities.” Unfortunately, treating hairstyles as a civil right oversimplifies a complex issue and will probably do more harm than good. Hairstyle discrimination requires a more subtle solution.

It’s not that hair is too trivial to be a civil rights issue. Hairstyles can be deeply significant expressions of racial pride and individual dignity, and thoughtless demands to alter one’s hair can be humiliating and stigmatizing.

Indeed, personal appearance has been a highly charged racial issue for decades. “Sunday best” attire helped early civil rights activists overcome demeaning stereotypes and win hearts and minds.

By the 1960s, racial justice activists challenged conventional standards of beauty and professionalism based on Caucasian characteristics. The “Black is Beautiful” movement made a natural hairstyle both a chic fashion statement and an expression of racial pride.

Often employers — and courts — don’t appreciate the distinctive historical and cultural significance of such hairstyles. This is as often a problem of ignorance as it is of racial animus. For example, because white women wear an all-braided hairstyle only on vacation at the beach, the style might seem unprofessional given that limited frame of reference. Indeed, when in 1981 a federal court held that an airline that banned the all-braided hairstyle was not liable for race discrimination, the judge noted that the hairstyle was popularized by the white actress Bo Derek, who famously wore it on the beach in the movie “10.”

But for the plaintiff in the case, Renee Rogers, braids were not a vacation look; they were “part of the cultural and historical essence of black American women.”

There’s certainly a need for greater sensitivity to the importance of hair and hairstyles. But the Civil Rights Commission’s sweeping new legal right — to “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state” — goes too far.

Many employers have good reasons to restrict some versions of these hairstyles. A conservative financial institution might find that a flamboyant or whimsical hairstyle, regardless of whether or not it is associated with racial identity, undermines the image it wants to convey to clients; a high-fashion boutique might want to make sure its employees look as polished and chic as the clothing it sells.

Moreover, the new hairstyle rights can’t apply just to minority groups. If black employees have a right to wear, say, multicolored braids or an “untrimmed” Afro, then it follows that white employees have a right to wear unusual hairstyles associated with their race too, such as a messy shag cut, a regrettable 1980s style “Mullet” or glam-rock teased hair. And who’s to say which hairstyles are associated with which races?

Overly strict and racially insensitive grooming rules are a real problem. But trying to cut them down to size with civil rights law is a bit like trying give a haircut with a pair of hedge clippers: it might work, but the end result will be a mess.

Richard Thompson Ford is an expert on civil rights and antidiscrimination law. He has distinguished himself as an insightful voice and compelling writer on questions of race and multiculturalism. His scholarship combines social criticism and legal analysis and he writes for both popular readers and for academic and legal specialists. His work has focused on the social and legal conflicts surrounding claims of discrimination, on the causes and effects of racial segregation, and on the use of territorial boundaries as instruments of social regulation.