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By Aditi Malhotra
In 2018, Sandra Hinds recalls, her boss at a state agency threatened disciplinary action if she didn’t cut the dreadlocks she’d been growing for 13 years. While other women were allowed to wear their hair at any length, Hinds had to pin her locks every morning before going to work. It wasn’t until last July, after she filed an official grievance, that her government employer finally amended the personnel code, specifying instead that hair be “professional.” For two years, “I was going home with a headache,” the 63-year-old says.
Hinds’s experience is not a one-off or a relic of outdated policies that for the most part go ignored. Until last year, a multinational corporation employing half a million workers continued to enforce regulations banning beards and Black hairstyles, like afros and braids. (The dress code was changed after a lawsuit and a growing movement to prohibit discrimination based on a person’s natural hair.) Such grooming requirements, experts say, inherently treat White, Eurocentric contours of beauty as the professional standard, marginalizing people of color in America. “There’s something deeply traumatic about being told that the way you look is unacceptable by someone who doesn’t necessarily look like you,” says Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean and professor of law at Boston University School of Law.
Sure, addressing racial equity means prioritizing diversity at every level, but D&I specialists say inclusivity also involves examining inconspicuous cultural biases that place one identity in a hierarchy above others. “Our society is really designed for a default Whiteness, a ‘default employee,’ so to speak, and we don’t question that,” says Alina Polonskaia, global leader of diversity and inclusion at Korn Ferry. Even if the discrimination isn’t explicit, employers often adopt broad guidelines that call for “professional” looks, Onwuachi-Willig says, which allows for prejudice to seep in. Think about the ubiquitous hoodie: when a Black man wears one, it is often viewed unfavorably, while when a White man in Silicon Valley does, it becomes “business casual.”
Experts say much of the work ahead involves educating and training recruiters and managers, who are on the front lines of interpreting and enforcing appearance standards. “It’s about looking at inclusion not just as ‘hey we want to have an inclusive culture,’ but asking and questioning ourselves about who we are designing for—and who is excluded from our design,” Polonskaia says. For their part, lawmakers aren’t waiting; they’re moving quickly to enact legislation to address both explicit and implicit systemic discrimination on appearance. California’s 2020 CROWN Act, the first of its kind, prohibits employers from refusing to hire or discriminating against individuals based on their natural hair texture or style, particularly mentioning traditional Black looks, such as coils, dreadlocks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and afros. New York and New Jersey followed suit with similar laws, and a federal version passed the House in the fall.
Activists like Dominique Apollon, vice president of research at Race Forward, a nonprofit racial equity organization, say corporate leaders must go beyond rewriting dress codes and begin to acknowledge the harm that has occurred. People of color lose jobs and opportunities to advance. They fall away in disillusionment. Black women spend thousands of dollars and endure painful, lengthy procedures in efforts to conform. Recognition, Apollon says, is the first step toward healing: “It helps rebuild trust and regain confidence in a space where some humans may have lost more than what can be perceived.”