In a decision that delimits the concept of race to physical characteristics that are “immutable,” a federal appeals court ruled last week that firing an employee for wearing her hair in dreadlocks is not racial discrimination.
The case centers on Chastity Jones, a black woman who accepted a job at a Mobile, Alabama, insurance claims processing company in 2010. The company, Catastrophe Management Solutions, required its employees to project “a professional and businesslike image”; Jones claims a white human resources employee told her that she’d need to get rid of her dreadlocks because they “tend to get messy.” When Jones refused to modify her hairstyle, the company rescinded her offer of employment.
Last week, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of Jones’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit from 2013. The EEOC’s initial claim contended that Catastrophe’s actions, and all policies forbidding dreadlocks, are racially discriminatory because “dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” Essentially, the EEOC was arguing for a theory of race as a social construct, rather than some kind of biological classification with easily definable bounds. Race “has no biological definition,” the claim read, and besides that, “hairstyle can be a determinant of racial identity.”