This fall, the 11th Circuit upheld an employer policy banning dreadlocks in the workplace; the court ruled that dreadlocks are not an “immutable characteristic of black persons,” and as such, an employer’s decision to rescind an offer based on the employee’s hairstyle did not violate Title VII. The ruling drew much criticism, and sparked debate about whether Title VII jurisprudence is antiquated. The 11th Circuit’s ruling seems particularly outdated in light of recent changes to the United States Army’s grooming regulations. This January, the army issued a directive that permits female soldiers to wear deadlocks. This change is the latest in a gradual relaxing of grooming standards that have disproportionately impacted black servicewomen. The army has said little about what prompted the change, but one official said that many black servicewomen have been asking for a change in policy, given the ease of maintaining dreadlocks as opposed to other hairstyles.
The 11th Circuit’s decision comports with Title VII jurisprudence pertaining to discrimination based on race, but the outcome is, nonetheless, troublesome. The court’s decision is rooted in an outdated and formalist approach to racial identity that ignores both the interplay of race and other identities, as well more contemporary notions of what constitutes racial discrimination. This outdated line of reasoning fails to properly capture the purpose of Title VII.