Kalandra Wheeler
Texas Employment Lawyer Kalandra Wheeler

“I was told that my braids were unprofessional.”

“I was told to cut off my locs.”

“I was told that my hair doesn’t fit the ‘company culture.’”

Ladies and gentlemen, race-based hair discrimination is still alive and well in 2021, and Black employees are being told these very things.

As people of color, we can find ourselves struggling with many aspects of our appearance trying to fit into the world’s persona of us. As a Black woman, I know I’ve struggled with decisions related to my appearance throughout my career. I know other Black Women have similar struggles. This is particularly true when it comes to decisions about hairstyles and our workplace culture.

Straight hair can be accomplished, but that is not “traditional” hair for me or my culture. My hair does not grow out straight, never has, never will. I cannot achieve straight hair without harsh chemical relaxers or harsh heat from straightening combs and flat irons.  If you’ve never used a straightening comb, or better yet been accidentally burned by one, you’ll never understand the pain and anxiety a person of color goes through when getting their hair done to achieve what the majority considers to be a “traditional” hair style. Now granted, I was burned because I moved when I should not have, but I’ve digressed.

The fact is that anyone of color feels the need to question whether they can wear their natural hair or culturally traditional hairstyles to work is the very reason why legislation such as the CROWN Act is important.

The CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” “prohibits race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots.” https://www.thecrownact.com/about

The 2019 Dove CROWN Research Study found that 80 percent of Black women feel the need to change their hair from its natural state just to fit in at the office, Black women are 50 percent more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair, and that Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional. Furthermore, the study found that 32 percent of non-Black women never actually received corporate grooming policies at work, while only 18 percent of Black women could say the same.

Studies, such as the one conducted by Dove, reveals the judgments passed and the discrimination faced when Black women wear their natural hairstyles. Yet, this discrimination extends to Black women and men alike, both who are increasingly choosing to wear natural and protective hairstyles traditionally found in our culture.

Federal and state laws may prohibit some forms of hair discrimination, as it relates to race or national origin discrimination, but those laws do not go far enough. Courts tend to narrowly construe these laws allowing discrimination to continue. This is where the CROWN Act fills the gap.

To date, several states have signed the CROWN Act or similar legislation into law, with California leading the way in 2019. Since then, states such as New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Washington, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Nevada have joined.

Sadly, Texas is lagging, the United States also as a whole lags. Our hope is that Texas State Representative Rhetta Andrews Bowers, U.S. Senator Cory Booker continue, and other lawmakers continue to push for this important legislation where it has not yet passed. Studies and continued discrimination show that it is necessary for providing equal opportunities and equal protection.

When employers implement policies that require employees to maintain “traditional” haircuts and styles, what does that really mean? Whose traditions are they applying? Is the definition of traditional inclusive of all cultures?

It is important for employers to understand that what’s traditional for one person is not traditional for another. Employers should also know that implementing policies related to appearance and having rigid adherence to a set of standards found commonly in one culture but not in others is bound to be exclusionary and discriminatory.

If you have faced discriminated because of your race, national origin, or even religion because of your hair, contact our lawyers for a consultation to discuss your options. No one should be required to change who they are by abandoning their culture or religion to adhere to traditional standards that don’t belong to them simply for the sake of equal opportunity.

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Photo of Kalandra N. Wheeler Kalandra N. Wheeler

We asked Kalandra N. Wheeler, a Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C., to provide her sincere answers to a range of questions.  After reading, you will be more more abreast with the understanding and competency that Ms. Wheeler

We asked Kalandra N. Wheeler, a Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C., to provide her sincere answers to a range of questions.  After reading, you will be more more abreast with the understanding and competency that Ms. Wheeler brings.

1.Why did you start practicing labor and employment law?

I wanted to be able to help people that otherwise might not find help. Labor and employment laws affect most of society.  And – whether our results help one or many – our work and efforts as employment lawyers touch people in a real way in their every day lives.

2. Who is your favorite Supreme Court Justice?

Thurgood Marshall.

3. What do you think is the most important part of a good case?

The client. Good facts and evidence are definitely important. But good clients are a lawyers’ most valuable asset.  A good client: (1) is invested in their case; (2) works or worked hard for their employer; (3) can tell their story clearly and concisely; and (4) is someone that a jury will find sympathetic and relatable.

4. If you could write a new law, what would it do?

The Texas Workplace Anti-Bullying law.  I hear the stories, the ones told by employees looking for help. And in far too many of those stories the law offers no solution.  Every employee that goes to work and works hard to do the job they are hired to perform should be able to do so without abuse, harassment, and bullying. There is no justification for bullying, not in our schools, and not in our workplaces.

5. Besides Rob Wiley, P.C., what is the most interesting job that you have had?

For a year before law school, I worked as a lube tech for Jiffy Lube.  I spent hot summer days, working on hot cars, changing oil or flushing transmissions or radiators.  I never had a customer come back with a complaint.

6. How do you market yourself differently than others?

I tell clients what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. Before a client begins down any path toward resolving an employment dispute, they need thoughtful, honest advice. I am a believer in justice and everyday people deserve competent representation in an arena that is difficult for non-lawyers to navigate.

7. What do you do when you’re not practicing law?

I spend time with family and friends.  I read true crime books.  I sew and draw.

8. How would you describe the color yellow to someone who could not see?

It’s not the intense heat of the sun during the month of August, but instead the softness of the sun on your skin just as the seasons change from Summer to Fall.  It’s warm. And soft to the touch.  It’s fresh squeezed lemonade with a hint of sugar.  Slightly cool, inviting, and happy.

9. What’s your favorite legal TV show?

Law & Order: SVU

10. If you could argue any case in history, what would it be?

The Karen Silkwood case. But really, I think that would be more about arguing and trying a case alongside Gerry Spence for the learning experience.

Kalandra N. Wheeler is a Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C.  She graduated from The University of Houston with a bachelor’s degree in political science.  Ms. Wheeler went on and received her law degree from The University of Arkansas.