New York City Takes on Hairstyle Discrimination, Noting Its Close Relationship to Race Discrimination in Employment

Race discrimination in employment is not limited to overt expressions of bias. It can be more subtle, particularly when an individual’s expression of their racial, ethnic, or cultural identity is involved. This often occurs with regard to hairstyles. Antidiscrimination statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and other factors. The city’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) recently issued new guidelines that address how anti-Black racism in employment can manifest as complaints about employee hairstyles. A review of court decisions around the country show some recognition of hairstyle discrimination, but New York City race discrimination attorneys should look first to the NYCHRL and the CHR’s guidelines.

In the context of the new guidelines, the CHR defines “Black” to include individuals “who identify as African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, [or] Afro-Latin-x/a/o.” It identifies hairstyles commonly associated with Black people’s “racial, ethnic, or cultural identities” as including “locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, [and] Afros.” The guidelines state that “Black hairstyles are…an inherent part of Black identity,” and are therefore protected by the NYCHRL.

Some courts around the country have recognized race discrimination claims based on employers’ alleged treatment of employees’ hairstyles. A plaintiff alleged that her employer began discriminating against her after she began wearing her hair in an “Afro” style in Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mut. Hosp. Ins., Inc., 538 F. 2d 164 (7th Cir. 1976). The court, in recounting how the defendant allegedly expressed its objection to the plaintiff’s hairstyle, noted that “[a] lay person’s description of racial discrimination could hardly be more explicit.” Id. at 168. It went on to find that “[t]he reference to the Afro hairstyle” was an expression of “the employer’s racial discrimination.” Id.

In Hollins v. Atlantic Co., Inc., 188 F. 3d 652 (6th Cir. 1999), the plaintiff worked for the defendant for about a month without any complaint about her hair. She alleged that she arrived to work one day “with her hair styled in a fashion known as ‘finger waves.’” Id. at 655. A manager allegedly told her that “the hairstyle was ‘eye catching’ and, therefore, inappropriate.” Id. She was later told “that she should seek advance approval for her hairstyles.” Id. at 656. She complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and eventually filed suit, after additional concerns were raised about her hairstyle. Her complaint “allege[d] that white women who wore identical or equally ‘eye catching’ hairstyles were not subject to the same treatment.” Id. at 657. The court reversed the trial court’s order dismissing the plaintiff’s disparate impact claim.

Another federal appellate reached a different conclusion in EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, 852 F. 3d 1018 (11th Cir. 2016), en banc denied 876 F. 3d 1273 (11th Cir. 2017). After receiving an offer of employment from the defendant, the complainant was allegedly told that she could not be hired if she maintained her hairstyle, described as “short dreadlocks.” Id. at 1021. The court found that the defendant’s grooming policy was “race-neutral.” Id. at 1022. It held that, under its precedent, Title VII only prohibited discrimination on the basis of “immutable traits,” and that the EEOC had not alleged that dreadlocks were “an immutable characteristic of black persons.” Id. at 1021.

Phillips & Associates’ hairstyle discrimination attorneys advocate for New York City job seekers, employees, and former employees in claims for unlawful workplace practices under federal, state, and city law. Please contact us today at (212) 248-7431 or online to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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