Cultural characteristics and discrimination: where is the line?

Racial discrimination is something that far too many people face in the workforce today. Some people say or pretend that it doesn’t exist, but the fact is that people all across New York are discriminated against because of their race. It just may not always be as obvious as some people expect.

For instance, if you are wearing something that is associated with a particular race and are not hired because of that, it may or may not be considered discrimination. The line between what is and is not discriminatory when it comes to certain characteristics can seem very blurry. But, according to various court rulings, that line is drawn at whether the characteristics are “immutable” or not.

“Immutable” means that something does not change. In the context of workplace discrimination, it means that if a physical characteristic is associated with a certain culture but it is changeable, federal discrimination laws do not protect that specific characteristic, and a person can be fired or not hired because of it.

As an example, let’s look at one case involving a woman with dreadlocks. According to reports, the woman was not hired because of them. The employer backed the decision by saying the company’s “race-neutral grooming policy” prohibited dreadlocks.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued that the company’s policy was discriminatory, as dreadlocks are a “racial characteristic.” The EEOC argued that the grooming policy is an attempt to discriminate against African-American workers based on a stereotype that dreadlocks convey an unwillingness to be a team player.

However, the courts ruled that the policy is not discriminatory because it addresses hairstyles, which can be changed. They stated that even if a particular trait has cultural significance tied to one race, a person can still be denied jobs if that trait is changeable. 

Even if you don’t agree with the court’s decision in this case, it does provide some clarity into how the courts are interpreting the protections established by federal law, though every case is different. If you are facing a similar situation where you believe you are being discriminated against based on cultural or racial traits, it can be crucial that you consult an attorney to assess whether your rights are being violated or not.

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