Dreadlock Discrimination: Is There Such A Thing?

Antonio Hegwood (pictured at left) may have to shave his head to keep his job. A few weeks ago, his supervisors at a St. Louis gas station told him not to come back unless he got rid of his dreadlocks. Employers are allowed to have policies on hairstyles, but this case grazes the limits of the law.

Petro Mart hired Hegwood in January to work as an overnight clerk. He claims that his dreads, which hang halfway down his neck, only became a problem 4½ months into the job, reports the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Petro Mart's policy states that hair should be "kept neat and clean ... immoderate styles ... such as corn rows, braids etc. must be approved by a supervisor... dreadlocks and Mohawks are unacceptable."

So far, the 24-year-old has been standing firm, but with three children to feed, and a business degree to fund, he may be forced to slice off his backcombed coils.

Western Oil Co., which owns Petro Mart, didn't return a request for comment.

In this case, the law may be on Hegwood's side. Companies can't have policies that negatively impact one race more than another, unless they have a legitimate business reason to do so. A ban on dreadlocks affects black employees way more than white employees, so employers need a good reason for it.

Some have taken their follicles all the way to court. Abdul Jabbar Gbajabiamila sued Abercrombie & Fitch in 2010 for race discrimination after he was fired for refusing to take out his corn rows. The corporate policy demanded that employees have hair that's "clean, classic, and natural," but Gbajabiamila's lawyer believed Abercrombie meant "clean, classic and natural" in a particularly white way.

The store's "Look Book" of its sales staff included 36 head shots, and the 11 white men had hairstyles ranging from crew cut, to spiked, to flowing. But the black men all had highly cropped hair, where you couldn't see the texture.

Gbajabiamila's lawyer said he was fired for the "biology of his hair"; Gbajabiamila's hairs were "black, coarse and very curly," according to the lawsuit, "typical of Sub-Saharan African hair." Abercrombie and Gbajabiamila settled for an undisclosed amount.

Corporate hair policies can also rub up against religious laws. "He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the LORD; he shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long," states Numbers 6:5. And while most modern-day followers of the Old Testament get regular trims, some don't. By law, companies are required to provide "reasonable accommodation" for employees' religious beliefs.

Last year, a Roanoke, Va.-based moving company agreed to pay $30,000 as part of a settlement to Christopher Woodson, who claimed that he was denied a job as a loader because of his long, dreadlocked hair, reported The Associated Press. He claimed that his hairstyle was an expression of his Rastafarian religion, and after the settlement, the company agreed to implement new anti-discrimination policies.

Bobby Brown, a Rastafarian and a Jiffy Lube technician in Boston, also refused to cut his dreadlocks as part of the company's new grooming policy. So his supervisors moved him to a lower bay, out of sight of customers. He sued in 2006, and the court agreed that Jiffy Lube was guilty of religious discrimination.

Christopher Abbey didn't cut his hair once during the whole six years that he worked at a Taco Bell in Fayetteville, N.C. In fact, he hadn't cut his hair since he was 15, because he belongs to the Nazirites, an obscure sect which believes long, uncut hair is a sign of devotion to God. In April 2010, the store fired him when he refused to chop his locks. Last week, Family Foods, Inc., which operates a number of Taco Bells in North Carolina, agreed to pay him $27,000 to settle the suit.

Companies are struggling to convince courts that their hair policies are based on legitimate business reasons. " 'Our customers don't like black hair' doesn't cut it," says Lisa Holder, who represented Gbajabiamila in the Abercrombie case. "They need to come up with something else."

The American Mustache Institute didn't see any business reason for Disney's 60-year facial hair ban. After years of pressure, Disney finally lifted the prohibition at its Disneyland and Disney World theme parks in January this year.

Hegwood, for one, doesn't think the Petro Mart policy makes sense. "It's a gas station," he told the Dispatch. "People aren't going to not buy gas just because the clerk has dreads."

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