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Say It Loud

Black Workers Still Facing Battles Over Hair Style

Sule Moyo
2002-08-02 09:49:25

WASHINGTON (NNPA)?Deciding on a hairstyle for men and women is no longer a personal choice. Getting dreads or braids today could result in being unemployed tomorrow. Natural hairstyles may be accepted socially, but the workforce has not completely embraced the trends.

Fighting a blaze should be the only concern of firefighters but six local firefighters have been forced into another fight. They have been fired for refusing to cut their hair or trim their beards.

The firefighters?a Rastafarian and four Muslims?filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the grooming policy enacted by Washington's fire chief violated their first amendment rights of expression and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which protects free exercise of religion.

Some Muslims say they are directed by the Prophet Muhammad to "grow the beard and trim the mustache," while Rastafarians say they cannot cut their hair based on Leviticus 21:5, which reads, "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard?." Daniel Aronowitz, the firefighters' attorney, expects the case could be resolved this summer. A June 2001 preliminary injunction returned all six firefighters to active duty, pending final resolution of the case.

"We want to establish a ruling that the six firefighters can wear their hair and beards in conformity and still be [Washington] D.C. firefighters," Aronowitz said. The ruling should open the door for other firefighters to work and practice their religious beliefs. "It will allow other Muslims to serve their city and state in firefighter capacity," he said. This is not an isolated case.

"There have been a few other cases around the country involving police, firefighters or government officials," said Arthur Spitzer, ACLU legal director for the national capital area. Police officers in Dallas are among them. Six officers last year were fired or placed on suspension because of their natural hairstyles.

Dallas police Sgt. Felicia Thornton said two officers were fired but the other four came into compliance by changing their hair. The department's hair policy remains unchanged. "There have been no more incidents since then to my knowledge," said Thornton, department spokesperson.

Some advocates say the issue is clear. "No policy should infringe upon the right of an individual," said Theodore Holmes, Interim President of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters. "There is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) bulletin that talks about safety and as far as dreads go, as long as it doesn't compromise safety issues, no one should establish a [hair] standard."

Jennifer Kaplan, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington said, "Typically hair is a religious accommodation issue." She said religious cases accounted for only 2.6 percent or 2,127 of the 80,840 bias charges that were filed in 2001; race discrimination cases accounted for 36 percent or 28,912 of the charges filed in that same year. Hair discrimination isn't placed it's own category, so it could fall under race or religious discrimination.

Employers who impose such restrictions may be misguided. "We are concerned about talent, what is in the head as opposed to what is on the head," said Tom Vines, founder of the Washington-based National Association of African Americans in Human Resources, which provides a national forum where Blacks can share experiences and provide leadership on issues affecting their careers. Continued Vines, "We understand and accept that because of religious cultures people have different hairstyles." The issue hasn't been extensively discussed at the organization.

But policies on natural hair appear to vary across the professions. United States Postal Service employees don't have to worry about their hairstyles.

Derrick Richmond, a Washington letter carrier, has had dreads for about 11 years. "I had them before I started working for the post office back in 1995," he stated.

According to Bill Kennedy, manager of the Rosedale Branch office in Kansas City, Kan., neat in appearance is the main rule for postal carriers. "Certain areas such as those working around machinery have more restrictions," he said.

Some large firms don't even address the issue.

"Microsoft corporation does not have a hair policy," said spokesperson Stacy N. Cail.

John Skalko, senior pubic relations manager at Lucent Technology in New Jersey, said that there are no regulations on natural hair. "We were ranked number 12 in the Fortune Magazine as being one of the best places for women and minorities to work," Skalko added.

Deidre Parkes, a spokesman for Hallmark, the greeting cards company based in Kansas City, Mo., said there are so many different types of jobs within Hallmark that the main guideline is "proper business attire." Parks added, "There are no hairstyle restrictions at Hallmark".

Ingrid Sturgis, editor of, has switched between wearing natural and chemically processed hair. She's now had natural hair for three years, but in the past she has worn it for as long as five years while working in mainstream news organizations. Sturgis doesn't recall ever being discriminated against because of her natural hair. "I think corporations are starting to accept it now," Sturgis said. "They are accepting of different backgrounds and hair is a major part of that acceptance."

While some professionals may find common ground, university career counselors are faced with the task of recommending to students what steps to take to secure their first jobs. "We advise students not to have braids or dreadlocks," said Carlyle Roberson, cooperative ambassador program manager at Grambling State University in Louisiana. She said some companies accept natural styles but others will not. "It depends on the company."

Wanda McNeil, interim director of career services at Harris-Stowe State College in St.Louis, said, "I tell students a conservative style works better until you're in a company and get a feel for what the company likes."

Linda Atwood, career counselor and job developer at Ohio's Wilberforce University, recommends that students make an appointment with a hairstylist and "let them know you are going on an interview.'

"We advise them to be modest in hairstyling and be more on the traditional side," Atwood said, adding that students should "eliminate cornrows and twists because there are many employers who are not willing to interview students seriously [based on hairstyle]."

by Amecia Taylor NNPA News Intern

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