Title VII: What's Hair (And Other Race-Based Characteristics) Got To Do With It?

40 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2009 Last revised: 14 Oct 2009

See all articles by D. Wendy Greene

D. Wendy Greene

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law

Date Written: December 1, 2008


This Article offers a revised analysis of Title VII race, color, and national origin disparate treatment cases involving mutable characteristics, like hair styles, clothing, and language. First, the Article submits that historically, definitions of race, color, and ethnicity have encompassed more than “immutable characteristics”. These historical definitions have indeed influenced our modern understandings of what signifies race, color, and national origin. Accordingly, courts must abandon the notion that race is an “immutable characteristic” and thus view race in a manner consistent with historical and contemporary conceptions - which takes into account characteristics that are mutable. Secondly, this Article argues that courts should consider the stigmatizing effects of employers’ formal and informal grooming and appearance policies and the resulting adverse employment action on applicants and employees when they fail to comply with such policies. Consequently, an employer’s policy or decision that perpetuates a pejorative racial, color, and/or ethnic stigma and causes individual and/or collective stigmatic harm should be found unlawful under Title VII. This Article maintains that applying this jurisprudential analysis to cases involving mutable characteristics will increase the viability of such claims. Furthermore, it will more adequately protect applicants and employees from being subjected to stigmatizing employment decisions that are deemed lawful under current jurisprudence yet contravene the prohibitions and promise of Title VII.

Keywords: employment discrimination, disparate treatment, race, national origin, color, and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, racial equality, racial stereotypes, racial stigma, antidiscrimination, anti-subordination, hair, clothing, grooming codes, mutable characteristics, immutable characteristics

Suggested Citation

Greene, D. Wendy, Title VII: What's Hair (And Other Race-Based Characteristics) Got To Do With It? (December 1, 2008). University of Colorado Law Review, Vol. 79, No. 4, 2008, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1474088

D. Wendy Greene (Contact Author)

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law ( email )

3320 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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