Image Source: Getty / Gideon Mendel
A quick Google search of "Black person fired for hair" will pull up an alarming 98.2 billion search results. While the natural-hair movement has gained traction over the past several years, the workplace has been slow to embrace twists, cornrows, locs, braids, and other protective Black hairstyles.
In White Plains, New Jersey, a Banana Republic manager refused to schedule shifts for an employee until she removed her box braids, deeming them "unkempt" and "urban." Hyatt Hotels violated the Civil Rights Act when it specifically banned braids and cornrows, firing two Black women for violating its policy. And more recently, fast-food giant McDonald's has fired Black employees for wearing protective styles. It makes you wonder: how many more Black employees will be fired before this issue is actually addressed?
Why Did McDonald's Fire Black Employees?
Sadly, the McDonald's incident is just the latest reminder of the discrimination and endless fatigue Black employees often face in the workplace for their hairstyles. McDonald's is far from alone when it comes to policies that discriminate against Black hair — but as a global corporation, shouldn't they want to set an example? Maybe they took one out of fast-food competitor Wendy's book and decided that braids are "prone to bugs and lice." For the record, braids aren't unsanitary: first of all, they're intricate in pattern, allowing the scalp to be free and open — an environment that's not conducive to bugs. Secondly, they're washed two or three times a week (the average wash cycle for most women), with a monthly scalp cleaning. After six weeks, the hair is rebraided.
Maybe McDonald's sees protective styles as "messy" or "unprofessional" — further perpetuating Eurocentric ideals of professionalism. The 2019 Dove CROWN Research study found that a Black woman is 80 percent more likely to alter her hair from its natural state in order to conform to workplace culture and norms. This external pressure and judgment happens daily, and it's especially frustrating considering how frequently our hairstyles are appropriated by white women. When braids are seen on Kim Kardashian and Hailey Bieber, people gush over the innovation and clean style. Why are Black women not given the same respect? Does a hairstyle prevent Black employees from adequately performing their job?
Black hair is professional. It is sanitary. And it belongs in the workplace. A company's ignorance of Black culture should not translate to hair discrimination. McDonald's and other corporations cannot claim to honor Black History Month while refusing to implement hair policies that protect Black employees from hair discrimination.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Of course, I'm not knocking the hard work put in from activists and legislators aiming to prevent race-based discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from discrimination based on protected classes that are unchangeable from birth: race, color, religion, and so on. (However, that language doesn't directly ban discrimination against certain traits, leaving the discrimination decision up to the courts.) Then, of course, there's the CROWN Act, which grants people the choice to wear their hair however they choose — whether that's in braids, locs, cornrows, or straight. These laws were hard won and set up a foundation from which to dismantle race-based discrimination.
Still, dress codes are used to justify discrimination against Black employees. What is the point of these laws if companies consistently find loopholes and language discrepancies? It is imperative that the grooming and appearance policies be reevaluated to ensure that they aren't discriminatory. Language matters — grooming policies that state that hair should be "neat" and "well-kept" are outdated and should be modified for greater clarity. After all, a cryptic grooming policy lends itself to open interpretation, and every employee may have a different understanding of what it means.
Stories like the McDonald's incident circulate often, whether they're big enough to make it to your personal news circuit or not. Many come across them and, after making the obligatory "That's racist" comment, move on. But it's not enough to be aware of the problem. It can't just be a conversation starter that fails to inspire change; these injustices must spark action. Failure to do so will result in more and more canned statements from corporations like McDonald's issuing apologies and claiming the matter will be "dealt with internally" or "investigated immediately."
McDonald's and other companies have shown that there's a profoundly limited understanding of what constitutes as unlawful race discrimination in this country — a deficit that extends to Black hair. Perhaps the long-overdue solution is for companies to consult with Black employees when developing dress-code polices in order to ensure the rules don't hurt or disadvantage them. Because big surprise: Black people have a lot of experience in that area.