ELS Co-Sponsors GABWA’s 5th Thursday Lunch CLE: “The Law and Politics of Hair”

On June 30, 2016, ELS co-sponsored The Law and Politics of Hair CLE for the Georgia Association of Black Women Lawyers (GABWA). The purpose of this seminar was to discuss the expectation to conform that Black women encounter in the workplace in regards to their hair. From grooming policies to being judged by their peers, it is clear that Black women are burdened with the choice to conform or reject these ideals and stand alone.  Panelists included Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ph.D., Lisa Hoover, Esq., Ashley Scott Esq., and Howard Evans, Esq.

A standout case on this topic mentioned during the discussion was Rogers v. American Airlines, 527 F. Supp. 229 (S.D.N.Y. 1981). Renee Rogers, a black female employee of American Airlines, wore her hair in cornrows and was told to put her hair in a bun while at work because her hairstyle violated American Airlines’ grooming policy. Ms. Rogers filed a Title VII discrimination claim based on the company’s grooming policy. Ms. Rogers claimed that the cornrow hairstyle had historic and cultural significance in the African American community and thus was of special significance to her as a black woman. American Airlines filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The district court dismissed the claims separately as a gender issue and a race issue. While examining the gender discrimination claim the court decided that the policy restricted the hairstyle for both men and women therefore was not partial to one gender and dismissed the race based discrimination claim stating that the policy applied to all employees not a specific race. Further, the court stated that the cornrow hairstyle “is not the product of natural hair growth but of artifice.” Id. at 232. Though this case was in the 1980’s, there has since been a strong resurgence of Black women wearing their hair in natural hairstyles. Many Black women remain cautious about how they choose to express themselves and how they wear their hair in the workplace.

The panel also discussed that these kind of regulations are not only prevalent in work settings where African Americans are the minority. At Hampton University’s School of Business locks and cornrows are banned in the classroom in order to better position students to receive corporate jobs.

During the after panel discussion, led by ELS Partner Chandra C. Davis, many seasoned attorneys shared their various “hair journeys” throughout the duration of their career. Many attorneys remembered women, like Ret. Justice Leah Ward Sears, who wear their natural hair which gave them the confidence to wear their natural hair as established Black women in the legal profession. However, it was also addressed that current law students who are entering the legal field and new attorneys may feel the need to conform to get their foot in the door.

The consensus among the women was that in whatever way you choose to present yourself remain true to your authentic self. Who you are and how you choose to express that to others is a personal decision and there are different authentic selves that come with different seasons. Although as Black women we have societal pressure to make others feel comfortable with our hair, tone of voice and attitude when reacting to situations, we should never compromise who we are at our core to appease others.

~Author: Victoria Smith, University of Georgia 3rd Year Law Student, 2016 Gate City Bar Summer Associate