Reader’s Choice: Racial Discrimination in the Workplace: On Hair Politics

I was recently approached by one of my readers who happens to be a person of color and is in the process of deciding whether or not to loc his hair. He was excited about the possibility of going through with the process, however one  thing stands in the way of whether or not he will follow through:

How his appearance will be perceived in the workplace, particularly by people in authority.

Some examples of questions being considered are:

“Does it have an adverse effect or is it accepted?”

“Could I lose my job, be denied a position or a promotion because of my locs?”

“Will I be treated differently by others?”

I want to respond by letting you know that your concerns are valid, and I’ve even wondered about some of them myself at one time or another because of fear of discrimination.

The fact that these questions and others like them would even have to be considered by people of color is one of the consequences of Racism and how it manifests itself structurally within institutions, with the institution being employment for the focus of this post.

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) “is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”

(Note: when researching this initially I didn’t see anything about sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. I did some looking around and found a statement here.)

Under this provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “employment discrimination based on a person’s physical characteristics associated with race such as a person’s hair, color, hair, facial features, height and weight” is prohibited.

Unfortunately however, sometimes there are discrepancies between the social contract that is spelled out legally through these protections, and how things actually show up in everyday life.

In my experience, most people I’ve worked with think locs are distinguished or sophisticated. However, we do still live in a Euro-centric society where whiteness is widely held as the standard for what people see as being “normal” or “professional”, and as I’ve written before, many people of color can find themselves outside of that defined standard.

Read: “Re” “Can I Touch It?” The Fascination with Natural, African-American Hair.”

As hard as it can be to counteract the negative messages, I encourage you to fight against internalizing them. Internalizing those negative messages and acting them out on other people of color in our personal or professional lives can have negative consequences that only serve to reinforce notions of the inferiority of people of color.

See “Hampton University Business School Dean stands by ban on dreadlocks, cornrows”. or “Dreadlocks vs. Corporate America: Real Life Stories of Making the Choice.”

I long for the day when it is widely accepted that the way a person chooses to wear their hair has no implications about their professionalism and performance.

Some of us know that, and believe it, but if we find ourselves employed by people who think otherwise, and have the power and authority to make decisions about us based on that prejudice, actions must be taken.

If you feel as if you’re experiencing discrimination, seek legal counsel and check your state, local, and company policies to learn about the actions you can take to fight it.

Are you an expert on Equal Employment Opportunity  Commission (EEOOC) policy or have any additional resources that you can add to help others concerned about this issue? Please share in the comments section below.

Are you a person of color who has ever felt discriminated against in the workplace because of your hairstyle? Share your story. 

Are you a white person who has witnessed this kind of discrimination or have heard or participated in conversations with your co-workers about this issue? Share your thoughts.

Grace & Peace,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW



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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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6 Responses

  1. Children are not born racist. They learn it. A child finds all kinds of hair fascinating until someone teaches them different. And…As long our politicians fan the flames and promote prejudice to obtain power, it will be a long time before racial discrimination of all kinds disappears.

    • As we work against all the misinformation that is widely accepted, It is still important to give those who are impacted by racist policies tools they can use to protect themselves. You are so right. Predjudice is definitely a learned behavior, and when that predudice against people of color is combined with the power to make decisions over about them, the racism that results is very damaging. It’s long past time for us to change the lessons we’ve been teaching.

  2. rootedinbeing says:

    Oh there are so, so many examples I have been witness to over the years… What sticks out for me is white co-workers judging black women’s professionalism based on their name. So, a black bureau worker who I saw in court regularly got made fun of behind her back by my former co-workers because her name is a unique, “black name.” So terms like “ghetto” get used, as well as “unprofessional”… It is all very “wink wink” “ha ha” we are acting racist but we will call it something else instead, and they would have a superiority complex about it…

    What really makes me worry, more than anything else, is the complete blindness to it. I had a co-worker say you can tell how a person will vote based on their income level… REALLY?? There are so many connotations behind that statement.

    • Hey Sarah,

      You hit on a very real issue. Thinking that unique “black names” are “ghetto”, and “unprofessional” reinforces the notions asserting the inferiority of people of color. I would ask what exactly constitutes a “professional name”? The problem goes so much deeper than jokes in the lives of people of color, and even now there are conversations that are had among POC about naming children a “certain kind” of name to ensure that they won’t be discriminated against and locked out of the application process, or looked down upon like the woman in your example.

      I hear you about the blindness. Privilege is one of those things that can be so intoxicating to the point that it can make us believe that we don’t even have it. Whiteness is so valued in society, so widely accepted as “normal” to the point where white people, and even some POC who have internalized the negative messages about themselves see no problem with taking issue with someone who deviates from mimicking that standard in some way. Although I’m focusing on race here, the same can be said for other social identities as well in terms of valuing a certain dominant standard and devaluing anything different from that standard.

  1. January 4, 2013

    […] For further discussion, see Reader’s Choice: Racial Discrimination in the Workplace: On Hair Politics. […]

  2. March 7, 2013

    […] from my readers, and you can read a few examples of my responses to readers in the past here, here, and here. So please, contact me. I love hearing from […]

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