Declined Dreadlocks

Finally! You get a call back from that internship you applied for. They want to do an in-person interview tomorrow! Alright, you’ve got to grab your blazer, find matching pants, and dust off your dress shoes. Your outfit looks great, and you’ve got the smile to match it. But… what about your hair?

According to a federal court ruling in the 11th circuit of appeals on September 15th, 2016, it is legal to reject a job applicant if they have dreadlocks. This means employers can turn down somebody with a perfect resume and years of experience if they have dreadlocks in their hair.

The ruling happened as a result of Chastity Jones, a black woman with dreadlocks, who in 2010 applied for a job at an insurance claims processing company in Mobile, Alabama. The company, Catastrophe Media Solutions, requires all employees to have a “professional and businesslike image." She claims the white human resources employee told her she must cut her dreadlocks to be considered for the position, because she said dreadlocks “tend to get messy." When Jones refused to cut her hair, they retracted the offer. In 2013, Jones filed an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) lawsuit which was dismissed. The EEOC’s claim stated that dreadlocks are almost directly associated with people of African descent, making it discriminatory towards black people. However, dreadlocks are not exclusively associated with black people, as white people with dreadlocks do exist.

Even if dreadlocks were only associated with black people, it would not be considered discrimination against black people because dreadlocks are not immutable characteristics. Immutable characteristics are traits that one cannot change, such as gender or race. Nobody is born with dreadlocks as they are chosen characteristics.

Not all employers agree with this ruling. Philip Foo, a recruiter for The Omnicom Group Inc. at a recent Stony Brook internship fair believes an applicant’s skillset is more important. “That's absolutely stupid because dreadlocks..what does that have to do anything with the person’s set of skills? Right? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Caterina Reed, an advisor at Stony Brook’s Career Center, plays an important role for students seeking employment. From resumés and cover letters to suits and ties, she helps prepare students for career opportunities. “I’ve seen a couple students come in with dreadlocks and they looked perfectly fine to me.” she said. “Because from the chin down they were dressed in a suit so I didn't really see the dreadlocks as taking away from their appearance. So they looked professional to me.”

Despite the fact that she sees no problem with dreadlocks, she understands that employers may feel differently. “We try to tell students all the time that even though it is most cases illegal to discriminate on certain things, you know, gender, disability, sexual orientation," said Reed, "he employer could use that as one of their reasonings and not tell you that. So we will never know why they didn't hire you." “I’m upset because I was planning to get dreadlocks myself” said Stony Brook sophomore Maimouna Diallo. “I don’t feel like your hair should define your ability to work, my being educated should not be shut down because the way my hair is.”

Long before the court ruling, employers had been rejecting applicants because of their dreadlocks, as Stony Brook student Joshua Milien has experienced. “I was going on a spree of job interviews and I got rejected over and over and over again. And my mom said, ‘if you want to get a job, cut your dreads.' And as soon I cut my dreads, I got to two jobs.” Milien says he was growing his dreadlocks for two years, and that it felt terrible to cut them. "I planned on growing them for a long time."

Some students think this is a reflection of similar forms of discrimination happening across the world. Political Science major Yark Beyan sees a close connection. “If they start here, if you look into what's happening in South Africa, they were telling the girls that they can’t wear hair naturally. They have to straighten their hair. That’s you trying to tell people that you have to conform to European standards, and that's not how it should be.”

At Pretoria High School for Girls, in South Africa, students have been facing verbal abuse, suspensions and expulsions from school administrators because they want to wear their hair naturally. Media Law Professor Carolyn Slevin finds it hard to understand these disciplines. “What would be the academic reason for telling a girl she can't wear her hair because it's curly, afro-y?” she asked, “Does it interfere with discipline in the school, or academic purpose? I would question the reason the motivation for the school saying you can't wear an afro.”

The reason, many believe, is discrimination. This is why dreadlocks being banned are seen as discriminatory as well. “I think that’s absolutely ridiculous and it's racist and it's biased and it gives companies even more fuel to be biased against people of African descent. It's just not okay” said Celeste Demby, college advisor for Undergraduate Students, “I think it’s a thinly veiled way to discriminate against people of color. Honestly." It is quite possible that the conversation can change from dreadlocks to box-braids, twists, bantu-knots, or any other hairstyle worn almost exclusively by African-Americans. Some people see this as completely lawful and fair, while others see it as racist. The ruling does negatively affect job opportunities for African-Americans more than any other group, which can open the door to lots of debate and discussion.

“I always tell students stay true to yourself.” said Demby, “A job doesn't like the way you wear your hair? That's probably not a job you wanna be at. Cause you’re not going to be happy if you can't be yourself.”