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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Hair Post

Readers of Kenji Yoshino's book Covering, on which we had quite a few posts several months ago, and those who are interested more generally in issues concerning the workplace regulation of appearance, particularly when connected to traits that often connote racial or ethnic identity, should find interesting today's column in the LA Times by Erin Aubry Kaplan.  Kaplan writes about various recent examples of enforcement aimed at dreadlocks and other "natural black hairstyles" -- most notoriously, the recent pronouncement of a sheriff in Louisiana that anyone walking the streets of his town in dreadlocks "can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff's deputy."  What's interesting, however, is that the other two examples she cites come from black institutions.  In one case, the institution is Hampton Univesity, a traditionally black university that, she says, forbids "unusual" hairstyles, including braids.  In the other, she says that Black Enterprise magazine banned similar hairstyles on student interns.

None of this necessarily refutes Yoshino's arguments, or the other arguments that have been made for the protection in the workplace of hairstyles that are often identified with African-Americans.  But it does underscore the fact that these disputes risk placing the courts at the center of highly contested questions of identity that are internal to the affected community, as Richard Ford has pointed out in a great essay in this book. 

Kaplan writes that these regulations send the message that "[i]f blacks want to have a chance in the increasingly unforgiving corporate world, they will have to shave off their rough edges -- starting with their hair."  I suspect she's wrong to say that the corporate world is increasingly unforgiving, especially on questions of appearance.  She does raise a valid point about the effects of appearance norms.  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?         

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 12, 2006 at 01:00 PM in Culture, Deliberation and voices | Permalink


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I do not think that simply because some of the regulations are found in African-American institutions defeats the idea of a majority white culture "creating" or influecing the regulation. Arguably, both Hampton and Black Enterprise have a strong interest in appearing "professional" to the outside, majority white business and professional culture.

Certainly Black Enterprise does; its strong emphasis on entrepreneurship has necessary overtones of working well with a larger culture. That often means "watering down" appearance.

This is not just faced by African-Americans; I'm sure other etnicities face it as well. I remember recommending that one student, who was preparing for a national moot court competition, change her appearance. The student, who was white, refused to remove the multiple earrings that ran from the top to the bottom of her ear. I felt it looked unprofessional because it deviated so clearly from the mainstream.

I do note that I'm familiar with at least one case that might trump a so-called "regulation" due to freedom of religion concerns; see
Mississippi Employment Sec. Com. v. McGlothin, 556 So. 2d 324 (Miss. 1990) (African-American public school teacher was allowed to wear headdress because it was "an expression" of religious and cultural value, and thus protected by the First Amendment).

Posted by: gorjus | Jul 13, 2006 11:56:49 AM

This is really interesting post. The trackback function isn't working, but I composed my own response to it, arguing for the "more complicated" choice.

Posted by: David Schraub | Jul 13, 2006 12:59:37 PM

I had the same problem with trackback! (but do not know how to embed links):


Posted by: Belle Lettre | Jul 13, 2006 1:23:05 PM

I'm not terribly surprised that racial covering demands are imposed by black organizations. My recollection of Yoshino is that he stresses that covering does not depend on the race of the source or object. Rather, the notion is that institutional norms that compromise expressions of individual identity are objectionable (or, at least need to be justified through what Yoshino calls "reason-forcing conversations"). So a workplace dress code that prevents a black person from wearing corn rows would be equally objectionable as one that prevents a white person from wearing a Nascar shirt.

The presence of these covering demands even in black institutions does, however, illustrate Yoshino's point about the breadth of such demands. As a general matter I'd guess that covering demands (or, as Paul calls them, "collective norms") disproportionately burden minorities--whether they're minorities in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The notion that black institutions react to these norms by imposing them as a way of training people to engage in "appropriate" behavior or appearance in the workplace reflects the pervasiveness of covering as a requirement for entry into corporate America.

Covering demands on black people from black institutions may be even more problematic than ones imposed by other institutions, though, because it's likely harder to resist them through antidiscrimination law. This dovetails with another of Yoshino's points--that approaching covering issues solely from the perspective of intentional discrimination misses a lot of the harm imposed by these demands.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 13, 2006 3:19:34 PM

I haven't had a chance to read the responses but look forward to them; thanks for letting me know about them. Dave, you raise some good points. I'm working on a review of Covering, so I have my own more substantial thoughts on that very interesting book. But I'll briefly note that it's certainly true that Yoshino, for a variety of reasons I won't explore here, doesn't simply suggest that covering need involve "essential" traits, and hence wouldn't distinguish in all circumstances between a demand imposed by majority society and one imposed from within an identity group itself; but the examples given in my post do suggest that not all identity performance demands are necessarily externally imposed (subject to the caveats noted in my post and in the first comment above), and might be thought of less as "demands" and more as part of a dialogue from *within* a particular community about the desirability of various traits normally associated with that community by outsiders.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 13, 2006 3:26:05 PM

Having read your post, Belle, let me add: 1) The title of the post was indeed a nod to Caldwell's Duke piece; 2) I hope you'll take a look at my review when it comes along; you should find it interesting; and 3) for more of Gowri's excellent work on these issues, see her "Freedom of Dress" article, posted at SSRN.

Cheers, Paul

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 13, 2006 3:29:09 PM

Thanks for your comments Paul. I will definitely check out your review and Gowri's articles.

I've found this discussion to be very interesting, particularly from an employment discrimination law perspective. The issues here are rich, particularly if you multiply the categories of performative identity on which to analyze "neutral" workplace grooming codes: race, gender, sexual orientation, transgender , etc. I don't want to piss of Volokh and get into "slippery slope" territory, but it would be interesting to do a legal analysis (if one can be done, a matter of finding cases I suppose) of multiple intersectional issues to see how they would fit the existing Title VII framework. My guess is, it wouldn't be a great fit.

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Jul 13, 2006 9:18:38 PM

I find this discussion silly. Wearing dreadlocks is not more "black" than not wearing dreadlocks. In fact, most black people are not even from "the islands," or wherever, and wearing dreadlocks, for most black people, is a conscious and individual choice made later in life rather than a habitual byproduct of one's "culture". When was the last time you saw an entire family of dreadlocked black people? What's more, there is no longstanding tradition of dreadlocks in "the black community" -- if by black "community" one means the various descendants of African slaves in the continental United States. If there is, it is about as legitimate a tradition as Kwaanza, which is, frankly, a shibboleth. Much of "black culture" today just isn't culturally black, e.g., hip-hop. Most black people over 35 do not listen to hip-hop, and most buyers and listeners and producers of hip-hop aren't black, but if a historically black university banned loud hip-hop music in its dorms, I bet all sorts of sensitive flower-power liberals would wiggle out of the woodwork claiming there is white suppression of "black culture". It can't just be older black people deciding they'd rather not have their children and grandchildren inundated with curse-words, misogyny, and violent, incoherent polemics. That'd be too common-sensical. Likewise, many blacks might prefer a clean-cut look to wild, crazy hair. Not because white people force them to assimilate; not because of discrimination; not because of self-loathing, but just because they like a clean-cut look. One need only look at old photographs of black people to see that a clean-cut look is not foreign to being black. If blacks could proudly dress conservatively and yet stylishly in 1892, I don't see why doing so today is a sign of "racial shame". It is a performative aspect of stupidity to fail to realize that "black people" often make choices for the same reasons other humans do. Dreadlocks look unprofessional: period. And they tend to smell. And the people who have them tend to be unclean. And the dreadlocked tend to have zany politics. And the dreadlocked often smoke weed. And no dutiful pastor would let you into church with devil hair. It's the same with ebonics or slang. I went to a historically black university and I have plenty of black and nonblack friends, and the only ones who bring up "black topics" or use "black slang" regularly are not black. If a performative aspect of blackness is "conforming to white norms" or some such nonsense, then a performative aspect of blackness is having to deal with idiotic liberals assuming that if you decided to get dreadlocks it must be an expression of your "blackness," as opposed to, say, an attempt to get laid more often, akin to wearing a snazzy leather jacket or working out at the gym regularly. And if you have a clean-cut hairstyle, you must be suppressing your inner beast! As opposed to trying to attract other authentic individuals with similar attitudes, behaviors, and sensibilities, etc. Likewise, if you neglect to eat watermelon in a group of mostly white people, they should try to make you feel more comfortable, so your inner desire to gobble away will find free expression! It just can't be that you hate seeds and much prefer mango. Because black people don't like mango unless they're covering. I mean, like, they're black. Oh, and be sure to imagine I have an angry and semi-literate tone of voice.

Posted by: Covering = Presumption of Essentialism | Jul 19, 2006 1:51:10 AM

You people are equating black people's natural hair with multiple body piercings and NASCAR shirts!
Racism is so ingrained in this society that no one sees it. A black person with black hair is NOT the same as someone who chooses to poke holes in their bodies. A black person with black person hair is NOT the same as someone who chooses to purchase and then wear a T-shirt promoting racing cars.
To the person with the tirade about dreadlocks: Black Americans, with a history of slavery and centuries of learned self-hatred, are in no way any representation of what Black people would be naturally. Sure, we don't see many whole families with dreadlocks in America. But we also don't see many black families without a Christian religion, English language, or without racism against other blacks. These are all just traits acquired from our American society at large.

Posted by: Naz | Nov 2, 2007 12:51:13 PM

There is nothing natural about dreadlocks, which was the point.

Posted by: Naz is wrong | May 29, 2008 2:45:24 AM

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