The Public Shearing of Andrew Johnson’s Dreadlocks
In December 2018, a video, seen by millions, showed a white high school trainer in New Jersey cutting dreadlocks from 16-year old African American wrestler, Andrew Johnson. The lead referee had offered the young wrestler a choice right before a match, ‘Cut your hair in the next 90 seconds, or you will be banned from today’s competition.’
People across the world were enraged. The image is shocking: an adult white woman roughly chopping the hair of a black teenage boy in front of an auditorium filled with parents and children. Andrew stares straight ahead. The school initially stated that the cutting of the teenager’s deadlocks was done for the safety of the wrestlers in accordance with standard rules about wrestlers’ hair length.
However, the justification for the act quickly was overpowered by its dreadful significance. In response to the public outcry, the state attorney general’s office suspended the referee for two years, and ordered that all referees, coaches and athletic administrators in all high schools in New Jersey undergo implicit bias training.
A Conversation Begins
Public reactions to the video ranged from outrage to denial. According to an April 17, 2019 Washington Post article about young Mr. Johnson, residents of his hometown, Buena Vista, New Jersey, had mixed reactions too.
Many who attended the match that night, including Andrew Johnson’s grandfather, saw the cutting of Andrew’s dreadlocks as an act of racial intolerance. Others in the community blamed Andrew himself for bringing scrutiny of the town by failing to follow hair length rules applicable to all wrestlers. Some saw the event as proof that Donald Trump’s intolerance and hate speech had gained a foothold in Buena Vista. Others argued it was actually racist to say that the cutting of Andrew Johnson’s deadlocks was an act of racial discrimination.
Following the release of the viral video, people across America began asking questions about how hair, race and identity are interrelated.
- Would it have been less awful if the wrestler had been a young white man with a non-compliant mullet and the impromptu barber an African American woman trainer?
- How do we weigh the sociopolitical value of hair given the many different values members of our society place on it?
- Should we impose dress codes that dictate hair length and style based on a Eurocentric model of appropriate hair length and style?
- Can someone be discriminated against because of their hair?
My Client’s Hair
Several years ago, I represented an African American woman who worked as a sales associate in the rarefied atmosphere of a posh, high-end clothing store in San Francisco. In our lawsuit against the company, my client alleged she had been harassed and discriminated against based on her race.
Her evidence of harassment was powerful. For example, one time a white manager told my client that her hair was so coarse that it looked like “a horse’s tail.” Another manager referred to my client’s hair as “nappy” and asked her to straighten it. White co-employees ostracized my client and referred to her as “Miss Thang” in an exaggerated southern black accent. We later learned that managers and co-employees also were calling her “Brick House” behind her back, after the Commodores song of the same name.
In addition, white employees in the store used the code word, “Mr. Parker,” to provide notice over the PA system that a potential shoplifter had come into the store. “Mr. Parker” almost always meant that a black shopper was in the store. My client alleged that the company’s entire culture was hostile toward people of color.
My Client’s Lawsuit
I drafted a 48-page long civil complaint. It was filled with numerous examples of race-based harassment and discrimination provided to me by my client. It pulled no punches. It called racism by its name. I was angry.
Writing the complaint and exchanging multiple drafts and edits with my client was empowering for both of us. It gave word to my client’s experiences in a form that could be used as a weapon for economic justice in the fight that I was about to unleash against her current employer.
What I remember most about the facts of the case, however, was the widespread disparagement of my client’s hair and body by white employees. Her harassers, including managers, reached deep into their reserve of racist tropes for ammunition, and came out with epithets about the texture and fullness of an African American woman’s hair. These racial attacks are older than our nation.
I remember sitting across from my client in my small office in San Francisco. As I listened to her describe the many times someone in the store had denigrated characteristics of her hair and her body, it became difficult to read my notes. Hers was a powerful narrative. She talked about being called “a black bitch” by a manager and “Miss Thang” by several of her co-workers. She told me about being violently shouldered by a white manager in the back of the store as he passed by her. I also saw that her determination for justice was barely winning the fight against her fatigue and depression.
In the end, my client and the company resolved the case through a large settlement. After winning the day, my client resigned. She was one of the strongest and most resilient human beings I have ever represented.
Hair and Identity
Racial harassment and racial discrimination can be explicit like this, or it can be extremely subtle. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act does not lay out an exhaustive list of acts and attitudes that violate the rights of job seekers and employees. That is part of its strength. If gives us the flexibility to decide whether an act or process is discriminatory based on the evidence in specific cases.
Instead of relying on a limited number of examples, the law sets out protected categories of people and conditions. One’s race falls into one of the protected categories. Being disabled places a person into another. A person cannot be harassed or discriminated against based on their status as a member or one or more of these categories.
As of January 1, 2020, policies and practices that target hairstyles associated with race constitute acts of discrimination in both education and employment. Known as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), Senate Bill 188 modifies the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Education Code. The newly defined additional category states that discrimination based on race now includes “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”
Senate Bill 188: California Leads the Way in Protecting Workers from Discrimination
California has some of the most broadly protective employment discrimination laws in the nation. Our laws make it unlawful to discriminate against a job seeker or employee on the basis of race, color, ancestry, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions), disability, age (40 and older), genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, AIDS/HIV, medical condition, political activities or affiliations, military or veteran status, and status as a victim of domestic violence, assault, or stalking.
California Senate Bill 188, the CROWN Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2020, adds “Protective hairstyles” as an additionally protected category under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (Business and Professions Code section 12926). SB-188 also amends section 212.1 of the California Education Code to prohibit discrimination based on “Protective hairstyles,” which “includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”
California is the first state in the nation to add hair styles to its list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. In a world where physical appearance continues to be employed as a weapon for denying equal protection under the law to all citizens and residents, the new law makes a powerful statement about race and ethnicity-based discrimination. “Hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black individuals,” the Legislature declares.
The Legislature’s Preamble to SB-188 is Powerful
The Legislative preamble to SB-188 makes a powerful statement about hair in the context of the history of race discrimination and toxic ethnocentrism in America. It is worth quoting in full:
(a) The history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated “blackness,” and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment.
(b) This idea also permeated societal understanding of professionalism. Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.
(c) Despite the great strides American society and laws have made to reverse the racist ideology that Black traits are inferior, hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black individuals.
(d) Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group.
(e) Federal courts accept that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, and therefore protects against discrimination against afros. However, the courts do not understand that afros are not the only natural presentation of Black hair. Black hair can also be naturally presented in braids, twists, and locks.
(f) In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second-class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.
(g) Acting in accordance with the constitutional values of fairness, equity, and opportunity for all, the Legislature recognizes that continuing to enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism through purportedly race-neutral grooming policies that disparately impact Black individuals and exclude them from some workplaces is in direct opposition to equity and opportunity for all.
An Employment Attorney’s Personal Perspective
I was shocked, saddened and angered by the image of Andrew Johnson’s hair being cut off before his wrestling match. It looked to me like a public act of violence against a young man of color. Whether intended or not, it signified a racially-charged cutting away of Mr. Johnson’s identity in front of the entire world.
As a white American I never will fully appreciate the depth of the anger, pain and sadness that this act caused those who are routinely subjected to both physical and symbolic violence based on race. My hair has never been a part of my racial identity, and I never will be treated poorly because of its color, texture or style. I have never been passed over for a job because of my hairstyle. With the exception of a few years in high school when I thought long hair was cool and made a statement about individualism, I have always considered my hair with a passing blah.
But, my attitude toward my own hair has nothing at all to do with the power and importance that others in my community place on hair and hair style. If a stranger asked to feel my hair, I would think the request was odd. But I would not think of it as an act imbued with potential racial undercurrents. Others in my community whose hair has a central place in the history of racist rhetoric might feel very differently about such a request.
The public shearing of Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks in 2018 is another watershed moment in the history of race relations in America. The public haircut of a black child surrounded by white adults generated discussions across our country about who we are and how we think about, and treat, others.
Mr. Johnson’s experience helped focus attention on the history and manifestation of racism in America. Bigotry is almost always accompanied by insults denigrating others based on their physical characteristics, whether it be skin or hair. The California Legislature, recently criticized for its passage of AB-5 affecting workers in the gig economy, has done a very good thing here. Its preamble to SB-188 should be required reading for very HR manager, supervisor and educator in California.