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Most of us have had a job that enforces a pretty strict dress code. Whether it's business attire for an office job or pieces of flair while working in the service industry, employers generally have the ability to set a dress code for employees, as long as they make reasonable accommodations for employees' disabilities or religious beliefs. And schools similarly have the right to ban clothing and attire that would create a significant disruption in their educational mission.
But neither schools nor employers can enforce racially discriminatory dress codes or grooming rules, and the State of California became the first to extend that protection to natural hairstyles, including Afros, braids, twists, cornrows, and dreadlocks.
Specifically, the Crown Act, which was signed into law last week, extends discrimination based on race to include "traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles," and defines protective hairstyles as "such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists." "[H]air discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination," according to the new law. "Acting in accordance with the constitutional values of fairness, equity, and opportunity for all, the Legislature recognizes that continuing to enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism through purportedly race-neutral grooming policies that disparately impact Black individuals and exclude them from some workplaces is in direct opposition to equity and opportunity for all."
The new protections apply to workplaces and K-12 public schools in California, and prohibits the enforcement of grooming policies that disproportionately affect people of color. And those instances have been numerous. As Liam Hess reported at Vice:
"In 2010, an Alabama woman interviewing for a job at a call centre was told that in order to receive an offer, she would have to cut off her locs; when she declined, the job offer was rescinded. In 2013, a black female executive at oil giant BP was dismissed after being told that her braided hair made colleagues “uncomfortable”. Just last year, a black high school wrestler was instructed by a referee to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the match."
Prospective employees who are denied a job because of their protected hairstyles, employees fired for refusing to change their hair, or students disciplined for sporting hair that falls under the new law could have legal recourse to their jobs back, or get an injunction barring enforcement of discriminatory dress and grooming codes. So, in California at least, you can sue if your employer bans dreadlocks.
If you're considering a racial discrimination lawsuit, in California or elsewhere, talk to an experienced employment lawyer first to discuss your legal options.