Dear McDonald's: I'm Sick of Black Employees Being Fired For Wearing Protective Styles

Dear McDonald's: I'm Sick of Black Employees Being Fired For Wearing Protective Styles

February 17, 2022

A quick Google search of “Black person fired for hair” will pull up an alarming 98.2 billion search results. Although the natural hair movement has grown in the past years, the workplace has been slow to embrace twists, cornrows, locs, braids, and other protective Black hairstyles.

In White Plains, New Jersey, a Banana Republic manager refused to schedule shifts for an employee until she removed her box braids, deeming them “unkempt” and “urban.” Hyatt Hotels violated the Civil Rights Act when it specifically banned braids and cornrows, firing two Black women for violating its policy. And more recently, fast food giant, McDonald’s has fired Black employees for wearing protective styles. It makes you wonder: how many more Black employees will be fired before this issue is actually tackled statewide and then globally?

Why Did McDonald’s Fire Black Employees?

Sadly, for Black people, the McDonald’s incident is just the latest reminder of the discrimination and endless fatigue Black employees often face in the workplace for their hairstyles. McDonald’s is far from alone when it comes to policies that discriminate against African American hair. But as a large, global company, shouldn’t they be setting an example? Maybe they took one out of fast-food competitor Wendy’s book and deemed braids as hairstyles “prone to bugs and lice.” Braids, for the record, are not unsanitary. Firstly, they are meticulously intricate in pattern, allowing the scalp to be free and open — an environment not welcoming to bugs. And secondly, they are washed two to three times a week (average wash cycle for most women) with a monthly scalp cleaning. After six weeks, the hair is then re-braided.

Or maybe they see protective styles as “messy” or “unprofessional” — further perpetuating Eurocentric ideals of professionalism. The 2019 Dove CROWN Research study found that a Black woman is 80 percent more likely to alter her hair from a natural state to fit into workplace culture and meet social norms and expectations at work. This external pressure and judgment, that temporarily convinces us that we have to change our hair, happens daily. And it’s particularly frustrating when our hairstyles are so highly appropriated by white women. When braids are seen on Kim Kardashian or Hailey Bieber, people relish in the innovation and clean style. Why is the same respect not given to Black women? Does a hairstyle prevent Black employees from adequately performing their job?

I am here to tell you that Black hair is professional. It is sanitary. And it belongs in the workplace. A company’s ignorance on Black culture should not equate to hair discrimination. McDonald’s and other big corporations cannot both claim to honor Black History Month and refuse to implement hair policies that protect Black employees from hair discrimination.

Where Do We Go From Here?

And I am not knocking the hard work put in from activists and legislators who aim to prevent race-based discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from discrimination based on protected classes that are unchangeable from birth: race, color, religion, and so on. But the language doesn’t directly ban discrimination against traits, leaving the discrimination decision up to the courts. And then, of course, there’s the CROWN Act: the act that grants every wearer the choice to wear their hair how they choose, whether that’s in braids, locs, cornrows, straight or other. These laws were hard won and set up a great foundation to dismantle race-based discrimination.

Instead, what I am saying is that dress codes have been used to justify discrimination placed on Black employees. What is the point of these laws if companies are continuously finding loopholes or language discrepancies? It is imperative that the grooming and appearance policies be re-evaluated to ensure they are not discriminatory. Language matters here. Grooming policies that state hair should be “neat” and “well-kept” are outdated terms and should be modified for more clarity. After all, a cryptic grooming policy lends to open interpretation, where each employee may have a different understanding of what it means.

Secondly, the issue is that these stories recirculate often, whether they’re big enough to make your personal news circuit or not. Some hear these stories and pass it on with comments describing how it’s racist. But it’s not enough to be aware of the problem. It cannot just be a conversation starter that fails to inspire change: there must be action backing these injustices. Failure to do so will see more and more blanket statements from big corporations, like McDonald’s, issuing apologies and claiming the matter will be “dealt with internally” or “investigated immediately.”

McDonald’s and a plethora of other companies have proved there is a very limited understanding of what constitutes unlawful race discrimination in this country. This limited understanding extends to the depths of Black hair, from its rich history and culture to its extreme differences. Maybe the long overdue answer to this prevalent form of racial discrimination is to consult with your Black employees when you are developing dress code polices to ensure that it doesn’t personally hurt or disadvantage them. Because, big surprise: Black people have a lot of experience in that area.

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