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Title VII's Application of Grooming Policies and its Effect on Black Women's Hair in the Workplace: Rogers v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 527 F. Supp. 229 (S.D.N.Y. 1981)

Why Rogers v. American Airlines is Important

Rogers V. American Airlines is an important case because it is the seminal case on the issue of black women's hair in the workplace and grooming policies. The case was decided in the 80's and the Court went into detail about why braids are a permissible hairstyle to ban. The Court's say that because braids are an easily changed characteristic and are not specifically tied to race, they do not fall under the protection of Title VII.

Facts and Findings

Renee Rogers, a black American woman and flight attendant, sued her employer, American Airlines, for whom she worked for 11 years, when it demanded that she not wear her hair in a cornrow style, and instead asked her to style her hair in a bun.[2] American Airlines based their hair change requirement on their grooming policy.[3] Renee’s argument was that the policy banning her from wearing braids at work was discriminatory based on race and sex.[4] The trial court quickly dismissed Renee’s argument of sex discrimination because the grooming policy at issue  applies to both men and women, in that a man with longer hair would also not be permitted to wear an all-braided hairstyle.[5] Additionally, Renee argued that the policy was discriminatory on the basis of race because cornrows have a special significance for black American women in that they have been “historically, a fashion and style adopted by Black American women, reflective of cultural, historical essence of the Black women in American society."[6]

But the court did not agree with Renee’s argument (that cornrows should be protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because the grooming policy discriminated against her as a black woman[BJE(1] ), saying that she was not entitled to relief because the cornrow style was an “‘easily changed characteristic,’ and even if socioculturally associated with a particular race or nationality, is not an impermissible basis for distinctions in the application of employment practices by an employer.”[7] The court bolstered their conclusion by saying that American Airlines did not even significantly ask her to change her hair, instead suggesting that she put her hair into a bun or add a hair piece around the ponytail,[8] and reminded Renee that she is free to do what she wants on her own time with her hair.[9]

[1] Rogers v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 527 F. Supp. 229 (S.D.N.Y. 1981).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 231.

[5] Id. at 231.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 232.

Research Question and Answer

I. Explain The Significance of Rogers v. American Airlines:

The Rogers decision severely limits the hairstyles that a black woman with natural, chemically unprocessed hair can wear. Under this decision, black women cannot wear braids or dreadlocks, and their natural hair in many cases will not conservatively fit into a simple hairstyle, like a bun. As authors Byrd and Tharp put it in When Black Hair is Against the Rules, “because of the thickness of a lot of black women’s hair, a bun is not always possible unless the hair is put into twists first.”[2] How then are black women to wear their hair?

The Rogers court did concede that if the hairstyle at issue were an afro, there may have been a colorable race discrimination claim under Title VII because companies would then be banning a natural hairstyle that does “implicate the policies underlying the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics.”[3] But the afro introduces a different set of problems. Many black women would want to wear their hair in an afro within a corporate environment, especially a large afro, because of the political and social statement that it indicates to others, whether intended or not[BJE(2] .[4] Black women wearing cornrows and other ethnic hairstyles is an alternative option to what discrimination they might face  when worn in a large afro due to the politicized message of the afro has taken on.[5]

[1] Byrd and Tharps, When Black Hair Is Against the Rules, The New York Times, (2014) <>.

[2] Id.

[3] Rogers v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 527 F. Supp. 229 (S.D.N.Y. 1981).

[4] Johnson and Bankhead, supra note 28.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 91

[7] Id. at 90.

Research Strategies

The best way to answer the above question is to first start by reading the case itself. Under this tab there is a link to Rogers v. American Airlines that will take the researcher to a PDF copy of the case.

The next step will help the researcher to better understand the nuance involved. That is to read articles about the care taking of black women’s hair. Byrd and Tharps, When Black Hair Is Against the Rules, is a helpful article that informs the researcher as to the maintenance and issues that can arise with black women’s hair. This article is a New York Times article, and will be linked below. Another helpful article is Johnson and Bankhead's Hair It Is: Examining the Experiences of Black Women with Natural Hair, ​which is also linked below for further insight into this area.