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.
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.
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