Black people have a fraught and painful history with hair. In particular, black women with textured, tightly curled or kinky hair have spent exorbitant amounts of time and money torturing it into straightness with chemicals and flat irons to fit a white standard of beauty that magazines have told them to aspire to and employers have told them to comply with. But when both black men and women have opted to wear cornrows, braids, and locks — styles that worked better with their hair’s texture — they have run into resistance from some employers, who have claimed the styles were inappropriate for work or violated grooming rules about “professional” looking hair.
Rarely did these workers take complaints all the way to a court or a civil rights commission. And even when they did, the person with the braids or cornrows usually lost. Employers have been free to impose ostensibly race-neutral grooming standards on employees. Only forbidding an Afro hairstyle has been found to be discriminatory.