Hair discrimination isn’t unlawful. But, firing a black employee because of her natural hair texture is.


Congress has considered legislation several times that would prohibit employers from discriminating based on an individual’s hair texture or hairstyle if that hair texture or that hairstyle is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin.

But it has never passed.

Why? Because many believe that this law is unnecessary since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already forbids discrimination based on race and national origin.

Indeed, earlier this month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it had settled a race discrimination lawsuit that centered around an employer’s alleged treatment of a black employee who changed her hairstyle. Here’s more from the EEOC’s press release:

According to the lawsuit, a Black employee interviewed and was selected for a sales position … while wearing a wig with long, straight hair. After she stopped wearing the wig and started wearing her hair in its naturally curly texture, the company’s owner instructed a human resources manager to counsel the employee about her hair and ‘looking more professional,’ complaining that the worker ‘came in with beautiful hair.’ The employee’s hair—considered type 4-A’ on the Andre Walker Hair Typing System—is commonly associated with people who, like the employee, are Black.

The owner then directed the employee to begin wearing her wig with straight hair again. When the employee continued to wear her natural hair, the company fired her. The company later hired a white worker in her place, according to the EEOC’s lawsuit.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits firing employees or subjecting them to different terms and conditions of employment because of their race. 

While asking an employee to change their hairstyle isn’t inherently racist—like banning blue hair—employers risk violating Title VII when they focus hairstyle edicts on members of one race, such as asking individuals with tightly coiled or tightly curled locs, twists, or braids—typically associated with black men and women—to straighten their hair.

As a senior EEOC trial attorney noted, “Professionalism standards rooted in prejudices associated with racial characteristics are unlawful. No one should be terminated or treated differently because of hair texture associated with their race, under the guise of what is supposedly professional or not.”

The company will pay $50,000 to settle the lawsuit. Additionally, it must enact and disseminate policies that prohibit discrimination based on race or any immutable characteristic of race, including hair texture, and policies that prohibit discrimination against an employee who chooses to display their natural hair texture or style it in a way that is protective of their natural hair or scalp. The company will also regularly report the complaints it receives regarding race discrimination to the EEOC.

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