Newswise — While federal law protects African American men who wear their hair in an Afro to work, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law points out that black women do not have the same legal protections for their hairstyles.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig said that gap allows employers to enforce grooming policies that prohibit black women from wearing their hair in such natural styles as braids, twists or locks.

"Caught in a society that identifies long, flowing hair as the ideal for women and has anti-discrimination laws that reinforce that ideal, black women find themselves with very limited choices for their hair compared to white women," said Onwuachi-Willig, an expert in employment law. "Black women are even more limited than white women in the extent to which they can wear their hair as it just grows naturally out of their head, without any styling."

Onwuachi-Willig notes that an African American's hair is genetically programmed to grow straight out, unlike most white persons' hair, which naturally grows down toward their shoulders. This difference has been noted in legal decisions that protect African American men from policies that prohibit Afro hairstyles, because an Afro is a biological "racial characteristic" of blacks.

But no legal decision so far has protected women who want to wear their hair in a way similarly determined by biology. Black women, she said, are thus forced to fashion their hair in one of three ways if an employer's grooming policy bans natural, black-female hairstyles such as braids:

--let it grow it out into an Afro, which is protected by law--crop it close--straighten it by enduring frequent and often expensive chemically-induced perms.

But Onwuachi-Willig said a different approach to the law would protect women from grooming policies that "impose on black women to either hide or change a natural, phenotypical characteristic."

She said that courts should recognize braids, twists and locks as the black female equivalent of an Afro and a biological racial characteristic protected under existing law. Grooming policies that prohibit these kinds of styles, she said, place an illegal undue burden on black women to comply.

"Based on this rationale, natural hairstyles for black women should already be protected under antidiscrimination law, but are currently excluded only because of courts' incomplete understanding of the nature of black women's hair," Onwuachi-Willig wrote in her paper, "Another Hair Piece: Exploring New Strands of Analysis Under Title VII." The paper is forthcoming in the Georgetown Law Journal.

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Georgetown Law Journal