Wednesday, July 12, 2006


PrawfsBlawg contributor Paul Horwitz blogs on a very interesting LA Times column about hair. Specifically, Black (African-American) hair. The gist of it is that the traits of Black hair (nappy, kinky) mean that certain hairstyles (braids, dreadlocks) are far easier than traditionally "White" hairstyles. Almost definitely not coincidentally, these hairstyles often are prohibited under corporate dress and grooming policies.

In general, a corporate policy targeting such "voluntary" aspects of racial identity is not subject to a Title VII challenge. This isn't due to anything actually written in the statute, but rather is a "judicially constructed definition" of Title VII's limits [Camille Gear Rich, Performing Racial and Ethnic Identity: Discrimination By Proxy and the Future of Title VII, 79 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1134, 1138 (2004)]. There are excellent arguments to be made that this is a bad (descriptively and normatively) interpretation of Title VII, and that it should be interpreted to include sociological traits that are linked to certain races (the one's Horwitz cites to, and with which I strongly concur, are found in Kenji Yoshino's Covering, about which I blogged here).

Anyway, the kink (no pun intended) that is brought up in the article and Horwitz's commentary is that some of the institutions which are hostile to these Black hairstyles are in fact Black institutions (such as Hampton University and Black Enterprise magazine). Horwitz wonders:
But does the fact that the regulations she cites (aside from the egregious example of the Louisiana sheriff) come from black institutions complicate the picture? Does it suggest that "corporate" appearance norms are just that -- collective norms emerging from workplace culture, norms that may be objectionable but can't simply be reductively described as stemming from the callousness of a white majority? Or, as one of our commenters, John Kang, has suggested, does it suggest that even black communities can internalize a form of "white" aesthetics? Or is the answer still more complicated than either of those descriptions?

Unfortunately, Professor Kang's article is not yet available online, but my own opinion I suspect would be a modified version of his.

Imagine, say, an elite law firm that has a young African-American associate who wears his hair in dreadlocks. The partner in charge tells him that this hairstyle has to change. In doing so, he explains that it's not he who has the problem with it, that if it were up to him he would allow the styling, and even that he recognizes that this is an unfair burden that falls disproportionately on the firm's young Black associates. But, he says, it's likely that this sort of hair will be off-putting or give a bad impression to the type of clients they have and are trying to attract--older, white, corporate executives.

It is easy to extrapolate this to a Black institution, whose hypothetical words might argue either that (in the case of the magazine) that we need to be taken seriously by white advertisers, or financiers, or banks, or other magazines, and having a bunch of employees in dreads makes that task more difficult; or (in the case of the college) that the student's are going to be graduating into a world where many people unfairly make assumptions based on certain appearances, and we want to break you out of the habit now before you get hurt in the real world.

This understanding tags the cause of anti-African-American-hairstyles neither in "the callousness of a white majority," nor in "black communities...internaliz[ing] a form of 'white' aesthetics." It is, to be sure, a manifestation of White privilege, but in a more depersonalized form that does not depend on any individual actor simply demonstrating callousness or racism.

Indeed, I think this is an important observation to make. Much of what today preserves racial hierarchy (in the sense of providing privileges to Whites and disadvantaging Blacks) does not stem from simple racism and malice. Noting that a given policy entrenches racial hierarchy is not the same thing as saying that the persons who follow a certain policy are racists or virtual Klan members. Rather, racism perpetuates itself by institutions, cultural norms, and feedback loops which allow it to remain pervasive even as most individuals consciously condemn it. When we split off the tasks of "fighting racism" from "fighting racists", recognizing that the former won't always include the latter, then we can perhaps make some progress against the reflexive defensiveness many White people have towards the allegations that there still is racism in American society today.


Ronnie said...

Having not been hired for where dreadlocks myself, this post hits close to home. The fact that I was coming from what is consider a more prestigous instituition in the world of fine-dining. I was appalled when my girlfriend told me that they wouldn't even interview me because of my hair, although they knew I was overly qualified. These types of policies are completely ridiculous as they have no bearing on the ablility for someone to look or act in a professionaly manner. When I was working at that nicer resturant,in the land of good ole boys(GA), I had plenty of older whites, both male and female complement me on my hair, and how unique and nice it was. Maybe it was the wine, but this seemed to demonstrate a a genral acceptance in that type of crowd. I've gotten on kind of a rant, but this issue really riles me. I plan to be a lawyer one day, but also don't plan on cutting my hair either. Hopefully this won't be an issue in the next 5 years

Ronnie said...

Perhaps, I shouldn't comment whilist I'm busy. Or, maybe I should just proofread.

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