Six Flags Does Not Like Locs
At Six Flags, the Don’ts of Dos
Employees Say Their Ethnic Hairstyles Are Challenged as ‘Extreme,’ and They’ve Complained to ACLU
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2006; B01
It’s right there, under “Extreme Hairstyles,” in the 2006 seasonal handbook for Six Flags America employees: no dreadlocks, tails, partially shaved heads “or any hairstyle that detracts or takes away from Six Flags theming.”
Braids “must be in neat, even rows and without beads or other ornaments,” the amusement park handbook advises.
That prompted Tim Bivins, 18, who has worked at Six Flags America in Largo for two years, to cut several inches off his hair this spring and pay $50 to have it braided into cornrows. Not good enough, he was told. Cut the braids shorter or go home.
Shannon Boyd, 17, bought a wig to cover the locks she sports under her Tweety Bird costume. Not appropriate, she was told, because the wig wasn’t her natural hair color.
Jonathan DeLeon, who had been growing his fanny-length hair since he was 7, was hired in March to portray Sylvester and Daffy Duck. A few weeks later, however, he was told that he would have to cut his three-foot-plus-long braids. His mother whacked off more than two feet, but it wasn’t enough, park officials said.
“They told me I had to cut them even shorter or go home,” said DeLeon, 17, of Largo. “They said they wanted an all-American thing. That’s what they said to all the black people. I had already cut it a lot, so I just left.”
Femi Manners and her 16-year-old son, Shakir, agreed that he would not change his hair: short cornrows with a small design braided in. Instead, she contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which is investigating complaints from more than a dozen black employees of Six Flags America.
The complaint is the latest in recent years alleging that private companies or government agencies are violating civil rights with restrictions on ethnic and Africa-inspired hairstyles and beards.
“This is culturally very, very insensitive and possibly discrimination,” said King Downing, coordinator of the ACLU’s national campaign against racial profiling. “The question is, how long do we have to keep going around and around with this when it comes to people of African descent and the natural style of the hair that they wear?”
In the 1980s, a Marriott reservations clerk in downtown Washington sued successfully to keep her cornrows. Five years ago, District firefighters sought to wear longer hair or beards for religious reasons. Now, the fight has come to Prince George’s, a predominantly black, middle-class county where many people consider such hairstyles a point of ethnic pride and few consider them “extreme.”
“Many of the people who go to Six Flags have locks and twists and Afros,” said Demetrius Hall, 16, of Suitland, a Muslim who said he will not cut his hair, for religious reasons. “Black people are not offended by those hairstyles.”
Wendy Goldberg, national spokeswoman for Six Flags, said the policy has been in place for years. “I understand they don’t want to conform, that this is a matter of heritage and pride,” she said. “But you can apply the question of heritage and culture and not conforming to piercing, shaved heads and tattoos.”
Walt Disney Co. also holds its employees to a grooming policy that limits some ethnic hairstyles, agreeing only six years ago to allow mustaches and three years ago to let men wear short cornrow braids.
“The hair has to be clean, natural and polished,” said Jacob DiPietre, park spokesman for Walt Disney World. “I don’t think dreadlocks are allowed.”
Linda Jones, who edits a newsletter called Nappy News for people who wear ethnic hairstyles, said “it is very telling” that theme parks forbid such styles for employees.
“Why not point out mohawk or mullet [styles], too?” Jones asked. “They only specify dreadlocks, and who is more likely to wear those styles? Are they saying that styles that aren’t in keeping with the European aesthetic are not professional?”
Critics of these Afrocentric styles, she said, include some African Americans. At Hampton University in Virginia, for example, male students in the master’s in business administration program with hairstyles deemed “extreme” are restricted from certain activities, such as meeting with visiting corporate executives.
Sid Credle, Business School dean at the historically black university, said the policy was set in 2000 by a group of students. He said the policy was not discriminatory, simply pragmatic: For business students, “drawing attention to themselves as being different” is a negative.
The recent dust-up at Six Flags America probably resulted, said Goldberg, the national spokeswoman, from the effort by the new general manager, Terry Prather, to enforce the policy since he came on board in February. The Largo park was taken over last year by Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, and its new management has pledged to tighten up operations at the park — and make it more “family friendly.”
Prather, who is black, said that allowing employees to wear hairstyles that violate the park’s policy would lead to customer service problems. He said he has dealt with the ethnic hairstyles of his children, ages 23 to 33. “I totally understand it,” he said. “I live with it.”
He denied that the policy was antiquated or discriminatory, although he understands why some employees might be upset.
Prather and Goldberg said exceptions are made for employees with a religious or medical reason for not cutting their hair. But Hall, who wears a character costume all day, said he was ordered to change his long, straight hair despite his views as a Muslim.
“They first told me to pin it up, but when I did, they told me I couldn’t wear it pinned up,” he said. “They are still telling me sometimes that I have to cut it. I’ve got three supervisors who are all white, and they’re the ones who tell me about cutting my hair.”
Dianna Johnston, assistant legal council for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said questions about hair fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin.
“The law is not crystal clear on these grooming issues . . . ,” she said. “If the employer only singles out a particular ethnic style and lets people wear other hairstyles, you might have a claim of race or ethnic discrimination.”
But Johnston said the courts have not recognized an employee being harmed unless a dismissal or other adverse action occurs.
ACLU of Maryland spokeswoman Meredith Curtis said her organization is interviewing Six Flags workers, but she declined to discuss details until the inquiry is concluded.
Bivins, who just graduated from Largo High School, worked at Six Flags for two years sporting his plaits along with his colorful uniform, running rides and working as a costumed character until he was told to change his hairstyle. After having his hair cut and braided, he was sent home April 22 and told not to return until his hair was even shorter. He has not gone back.
Boyd said she learned of her supervisor’s concerns one day after her mother dropped her off. “They said I couldn’t come into the park until my hair was braided down or cut,” said Boyd, of Waldorf, who had worn locks the previous year. “My mom ended up braiding it for me in the parking lot.”
Supervisors called her style “unprofessional and inappropriate,” she said. So for the next two weeks she wore a wig. “Then they told me I couldn’t wear the wig, which was kind of sandy-colored, because it wasn’t my natural hair color.”
Now she simply wears her locks, which she said is a reflection of her heritage and pride.
“It’s a cultural offense,” Boyd said of the park’s policy. “They say dreadlocks are an extreme hairstyle, and that’s not true. That is the biggest misconceptions of African Americans now — with our hair. Whenever they talk about our hair, the styles and texture, it’s always something negative.
“They are telling me I have to change something about me. They are telling me I have to change what I am. I won’t do that.”
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