Cole, author of How To Be: A Guide To Contemporary Living for African Americans, says that cultural hairstyles such as cornrows (when hair is plaited close to the scalp in a pattern of cornrows), braids, twists (when hair is twisted into coils) and dreadlocks (when hair is palm-rolled and left in its natural state) are the styles most often unwelcomed in the workplace.
Men, she observes, tend to face more resistance than women in the workplace when they choose to stray from conservative hairstyles. “Traditionally men are more conservative and are expected to be more conservative. In America, regardless of race, conservative means shorter, closely cropped hair. If you go from what is the standard to something more free and expressive, it makes sense it would be a lot more resistance to it,” she says.
Janel Rankins doesn’t think that hairstyles should matter in the workplace. The 21-year-old cashier wanted a new look and didn’t think twice about having her hair colored blonde. But when she showed up for her job at the Williamsburg Inn in Williamsburg, VA, Rankins’ bosses complained that her new color was “gold orange” and distracting to coworkers and customers.
She was given a written reprimand that said she could face disciplinary action up to recommended termination if she didn’t switch to a more natural hair color.
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” argues Rankins. “I just want my hair blonde. I saw White people with blonde hair, and I liked it. I thought it would look cute on me. I love it! I plan to keep it. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments.”
She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office in Norfolk, VA, over the incident, claiming that the hotel’s appearance policies were discriminatory.
Regis C. Frazier Jr., a 31-year-old strategic market manager at FedEx Express in Aurora, IL, has wanted to wear his hair in twists for several years now. He’s been apprehensive about wearing them because of his job.
“Twists aren’t considered conservative. I work for a very conservative company,” says Frazier. “People who’ve worn dreadlocks to work have been frowned upon. So, if I wore twists, it would cause controversy. If something is different and someone doesn’t understand it, they will question it. Most people don’t understand what twists are and question [the style]. People will move from something they’re afraid of.”
City government workers recently have been making headlines all across the country because of the way they choose to wear their hair.
Willie Gafney’s crowning glory was never a major concern for him in all of his 10 years as a D.C. firefighter. Battling ravaging blazes were. But a few months ago Gafney found himself fighting to keep his near-waist-length dreadlocks. For religious reasons, a Nazarite vow he took nine years ago prevents him from cutting his hair.
Gafney was suspended when new D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few began enforcing a four-year-old department regulation, in March, limiting the length of beards and hair for safety and appearance reasons. Few argued that if hair is too long, firefighters will not be able to fit their hair under their fire helmets. Gafney readily showed that for a decade now he has always worn a skullcap that allows him to put his helmet on with no problems.
“I plan to fight this,” Gafney told the Washington Post. “I don’t think [Few] has the right to force his opinion on other people if it’s going to violate their religious beliefs.”
The D.C. firefighters union and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were considering challenging the suspensions in court, at JET press time.
Baltimore police officer Antoine Chambers, 32, says that hair doesn’t have anything to do with job duties, so he’s been battling the Baltimore police department since he was reassigned from his beat as a uniformed officer to a desk duty answering non-emergency calls because of his dreadlocks.
“You’re trying to tell me I’m not good enough to be out in the community because of my hair?” Chambers asserts. “There is a shortage of police. At the time of my suspension, homicide was at an all-time high. We need people to relieve this matter, and they are worried about my hair.”
Chambers’ Northern Division commander issued an instruction forbidding personnel from wearing locks, braids or cornrows. Chambers told police officials that his religion, Rastafarian, precluded him from complying with instruction. He was then reassigned.
“[Police officers] are required to wear a uniform cap, so you can not see my hair at all. Caucasian officers wear the long French braid down their back and it’s not a problem. It’s a double standard,” says Chambers, an eight-year veteran.
Dwight Sullivan, managing attorney of the Baltimore office of the American Civil Liberties Union, is representing Chambers, who has filed a complaint on the basis of discrimination for race, gender and religious reasons with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The case was being reviewed by the Department of Justice at JET press time.
“You have important issues of cultural expression and self-expression that a hairstyle can make for a person,” explains Sullivan. “Not only is it inappropriate for employers to impose restrictions of appearance on employees, but there are benefits to having people who manifest diverse cultures in the workplace. People oftentimes say they want to see someone who looks like them. There is a benefit government jobs can derive from having employees with a diverse appearance.”