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Hartford Youth Talk Race, Identity, and Discrimination in Wake of Dreadlock Ruling

Gianluca Ramalho Misiti flickr.com/photos/grmisiti
Creative Commons

In September, the 11th U.S . Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it's OK for employers to tell their employees they can't wear dreadlocks. The case was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against a company that rescinded a job offer to an African American woman who refused to cut off her dreads.

When some students from Hartford's Journalism and Media Academy magnet school found out about it, they were shocked.

"I feel like they just want all our hair to be the same," said Ashley Floyd, a JMA senior. "Plain straight down. And you can easily just run your fingers through it. Like Nicole's."

Nicole Ellis, also a senior, smiles back.

"Yeah, I can't do that all the time, trust me," she said. 

Student Madyson Frame listened to the conversation, as it was particularly personal for her. About six years ago, she decided she wanted dreadlocks. But she never thought her hair would be so controversial.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
Madyson Frame.

Madyson works at a Hartford nonprofit, and I went there to talk to her about her hair. She said she dreaded her hair because just wanted a simple hairstyle that she could manage.

"For me, I dreaded my hair because my regular hair was becoming too much too handle," she said, "and I needed a tamer way of doing it, I guess."

At the time, Madyson didn't realize that dreadlocks (also known as locs or dreads) carry a lot of symbolic baggage -- some good, some not so good. She got her first taste of the not-so-good when she went to a magnet high school with a business theme.

"Whenever we went on field trips to other businesses and corporations," she said, "I would get told to put my hair up, or put a beanie on. Cover it up. Because dreadlocks aren't business-like."

"Hair is extremely important in relationship to our identity, in relationship to our history," said Mary Phillips, a professor of African and African American studies at Lehman College.

Credit Lehman College
Mary Phillips.

She said hair has been used for centuries as a means of control. Slave-owners would cut their slaves' hair as punishment. Nowadays the control is much more subtle, she says, but still psychologically damaging.

"That's intricately tied to the legacy and roots of the black experience," Phillips said. "You know, part of that cutting off of our hair, was a way to strip us of that identity, a way to police us, a way to punish us, a way to violate our bodies, which you still see happening today."

But Connecticut-based labor attorney Dan Schwartz said that when it comes to racial discrimination based on hair, it really depends on how you look at it.

"I think there are a lot of people that would look at that and say, 'No, that's an immutable characteristic,'" he said. "And then there are others that would say, 'No, it's really more of a preference.'"

And herein lies the problem -- without a clear definition of what "race" means, it's hard to know whether a hair discrimination case is also racial discrimination.

But beyond racial discrimination, there is also the issue of identity. And hair discrimination can be seen in grooming policies across society.

In 2014,the Army banned a variety of black hairstyles. School dress codes sometimes have the same restrictions. As do many companies.

Credit U.S. Army
Army hair regulations, updated in 2014.

So if courts say that it's OK for employers or schools or the army to ban certain hairstyles, does that have an effect on the self-esteem of people who wear their hair that way?

Lehman Professor Phillips said yes -- and it can be especially tough on young people. It can skew their perception of themselves, and lead them to seeing their hair as something to be tamed, or even, reviled.

Student Madyson Frame said she was trying to tame her hair -- by making dreadlocks. But that effort could make it harder for her to get a job. Even still, she said she's not changing.

"I've had people say, Oh, you have such a nice curl pattern or whatever, why did you dread your hair?" she said. "And I mean usually my response is, 'Because I wanted to.' The hair is on my head, it's not on anyone else's."

She said her hair has always just been her hair.

But after learning about the history, and the recent court case that upheld a company's anti-dreadlock policy, hair has taken on a deeper meaning.

Students from the Journalism and Media Academy magnet school contributed to this story. Connecticut Public Broadcasting provides these students with a stipend to participate as student-journalists.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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