The War on Dreadlocks: Why Race under Title VII Should Not be Limited to Skin Color

by: Leoni Fred

On September 15, 2006, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Sols found that the complaint of an African American woman denied employment due to her dreadlocks did not create a plausible claim under Title VII, which prohibits racial discrimination.[1] Therefore, it is legal for employers to discriminate against people with dreadlocks.[2] This decision by the court shocked the nation because dreadlocks have been historically associated with the African American race.[3]

Historically, claims based on cultural characteristics associated with race have been unsuccessful in the courtroom.[4] This is largely in part because of the courts’ narrow interpretation of race under Title VII.[5] As in EEOC, courts have interpreted race as referring “to common physical characteristics shared by a group of people and transmitted by their ancestors over time.”[6] Common physical characteristics have been interpreted to include matters of birth and not culture. [7] Consequently, courts have only provided relief under Title VII to claimants who prove discrimination against immutable characteristics, such as skin color.[8]

However, the courts’ narrow interpretation of race ignores that historically, society has labeled hairstyles culturally associated with African Americans as inferior to those of the white race. Since the 18th century, the physical characteristics of whites were idealized in the United States.[9] White physical features, such as straight hair, signified respectability and civilization.[10] In contrast, African American features, such as tightly coiled hair, represented the inferior opposite. [11]As a result, White beauty became the standard, and African Americans were measured against it.[12] When slavery was abolished in the late 19th century, African Americans imitated white styles.[13] The practice of African American women straightening their hair spread to assimilate into white culture.[14]

White beauty influenced what today’s society identifies as acceptable hair grooming.[15] Hairstyles that are natural to African Americans, such as Afros, are seen as dirty while straight hair is viewed as cleaned and organized.[16] This view on hairstyles that are natural to African Americans has been reinforced by employers’ grooming policies, such as that in EEOC. In EEOC, Catastrophe Management Solution’s grooming policy stated that “hairstyle should reflect a business/professional image . . . .”[17] To Catastrophe Management Solution, dreadlocks did not project a professional and businesslike image because “they tend to get messy.” [18] Thus, it discriminated against an African American woman with dreadlocks because of the stigma attached to the hairstyle created by historical hegemonic physical characteristics.

The court, however, dismissed the discrimination claim because it found that dreadlocks are loosely related to the African American race.[19] It argued that individuals from another race may decide to style their hair with dreadlocks, therefore, they too can assert a “race-based disparate treatment claim.”[20] Yet, in reality the stigma that dreadlocks are dirty and messy disappears when non-African Americans style their hair with dreadlocks.[21] In 2015, Zendaya, an actress and singer of color, attended the Oscars wearing dreadlocks.[22] Giuliana Rancic, E! Fashion Police host, made remarks on the red carpet that her hair must have smelled like “patchouli oil” and “weed.”[23] However, when Miley Cyrus, a Caucasian actress and singer, wore dreadlocks to the 2015 Video Music Awards, she never encountered similar remarks about her hair.[24] Also, when Justin Bieber, a Caucasian singer, posted on Instagram a photo of himself with dreadlocks, no one told him that his hair was messy or dirty.[25] Instead, both Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber were shunned by the public for cultural appropriation.[26] Furthermore, it is people of the African American race that are being banned from wearing dreadlocks in schools and fired for wearing them.[27] In July 2016, Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky banned students from wearing dreadlocks.[28] In August 2016, a thirty-two year old African American woman was fired after two weeks on the job because of her dreadlocks.[29] These facts show that there is a negative connotation attached to dreadlocks only when African Americas wear them.

Under Title VII, race should not be limited to immutable characteristics. Dreadlocks have been historically associated with the African American race. They have been viewed as an unacceptable hairstyle historically because it did not resemble physical characteristics of the white race. Today, dreadlocks continue to have a negative connotation because of the white beauty standard influences on what is considered acceptable in the workplace. Therefore, when an employer discriminates against an African American with dreadlocks, he is discriminating against that individual’s race.

[1] EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Sols., No. 14-13482, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16918, at *41 (11th Cir. Sep. 15, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Hayley Wilbur, Court Rules Firing Someone with Dreadlocks is not Racial Discrimination, Style.Mic (Sep. 21, 2016), (stating that the court’s believe that dreadlocks are loosely related to race was incorrect); See also It’s Now Perfectly Legal to Discriminate Against Employees if they have Dreadlocks, BET (last visited Oct. 13, 2016),–court-rules-its-legal-to-not-hire-someone-if-they-have-drea.html (stating that African Americans are being punished for what naturally grow out of their head); Federal Court Rules that Companies Can Legally Discriminate Against Candidates with Locs, Black Girl With Long Hair (Sep. 20, 2016), (stating that the court’s decision is a “painful reminder that anti-blackness is embedded in American life).

[4] D. Wendy Greene, Title VII: What’s Hair (And Other Race-Based Characteristics) Got to Do     with It, 79 U. Colo. L. Rev. 1355, 1361 (2008).

[5] Id.

[6] EEOC, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16918, at *20.

[7] Greene, supra note 4 at 1361

[8] Id.

[9] Tracey Ownes Patton, Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair 26 (2006).

[10] Greene, supra note 4 at 1366.

[11] Id.

[12] Patton, supra note 9 at 26.

[13] Cheryl Thompson, Black Women, Beauty, and Hair as a Matter of Being 834 (2009).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Rachel Lubitz, Is it Ever OK for White People to Wear Dreadlocks?, Style.Mic (Sep. 15, 2015),

[17] EEOC, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16918, at *5.

[18] Id.

[19]EEOC, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16918, at *36

[20] Id. at 37.

[21] Lubitz, supra note 16.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Matthew Rodrigues, Kentucky High School Band Dreadlocks, Cornrows and Twist-And Gets Called Out for It, Identities.Mic (July 29, 2016),

[29] Marie Solis, A black woman in New York was allegedly fired from her hotel desk job for her dreadlocks, Identitities.Mic (Aug. 30, 2016),


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