Did dreadlocks lead to discrimination?
RaShaun Garlington knew something was wrong when her 16-year-old son, Tyree Bayan, returned to her car minutes into his March job interview at Cool Crest Family Fun Center.
"I can't work here," Tyree told her.
"What?" Garlington replied with a mix of astonishment and confusion.
She'd had the scene mapped out since he applied the week before: Tyree would come out, beaming and freshly employed. She would have him stand under the Independence arcade's sign and flash that 1,000-watt smile while she snapped a photo commemorating his first real job.
"Why not?" she asked Tyree.
It couldn't have been for lack of preparation, she thought. An employee at Black & Veatch and an entrepreneur herself, Garlington had run Tyree through rounds of mock interviews.
Kids have gotten hired at the arcade wearing sneakers and jeans. But Tyree, she insisted, should dress for success in khaki pants, button-down dress shirt and Sperry boat shoes. Tyree had a 3.75 GPA at Grandview High School and had been running his own baby-sitting operation since he was 12.
"It's my hair," Tyree told her. "They said I can't work here with these."
Tyree has dreadlocks. Dozens and dozens of coiled onyx-black strands drape just past his shoulders. He's been growing them since he was 11 . "They're a part of who I am," he says.
They could not, however, be a part of Cool Crest.
Tyree says the hiring manager told him that he wouldn't be able to work at the arcade with dreadlocks. His hair was a violation of corporate policy, and unless Tyree was willing to cut his coils, there could be no job offer.
"I didn't really understand it," Tyree says. "I have never experienced anything like that. My hair is something that's a part of my ancestry. It being something that a company doesn't want, I was just really sad about it."
Actually, the issue wasn't the hairstyle, it was the length, says Natalie Dunlap, a marketing vice president for Cool Crest's parent company, Adventure Landing of Jacksonville, Fla.
“For hair, we require over the ears and above the shirt collar. We also require a neat appearance, and conservative braids are allowed. We do not have specific hairstyles we exclude. That includes dreadlocks, Mohawks, etc., as long as they comply with policy."
Tyree says he heard a different message at his interview: “There was no mention of length or color. The manager specifically said ‘dreadlocks.’”
His mother was furious. So she typed out a message to Cool Crest that blew up on Facebook: "What about Dreadlocks is so offensive that you do not want any of your employees at Cool Crest FAMILY FUN CENTER to have this hairstyle?"
She continued: "He will NOT be cutting his LOCS off to conform to your racist, discriminating, policy. He is not interested in working for a company that is intentionally excluding an entire group of people based on a hairstyle that one specific race wears. I also will NEVER support your establishment again."
The post garnered 1,000 likes, was shared nearly 900 times and elicited hundreds of comments.
The Star was not permitted to interview Cool Crest employees. But Dunlap, after speaking with the Cool Crest manager, says Tyree was "100 percent a qualified candidate."
But “when asked by the manager conducting the interview if he would adhere to employee appearance policies regarding hair length defined in our employee handbook, he simply responded he would not."
“Dreadlocks, we don't care about that as long as they're above the neck in the back," Dunlap says. "I think they're beautiful. But you have to have regulations. And rule of thumb is you go by those rules and you don't bend them.”
Dunlap and Cool Crest did not answer the question of whether Tyree would have been hired if he had agreed to put his hair in a bun or ponytail above the collar, as other employees with long hair might do.
"If excluding dreadlocks isn't Cool Crest's policy, they are certainly communicating that in the wrong way," Garlington says.
Many other family attractions in the Kansas City area have no problem with dreadlocks.
In fact, in a reversal from previous policy, this year Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun for the first time will allow employees to wear dreadlocks and twists of all lengths.
"It's a decision that corporate has been working toward," says Kevin Malherbe, a human resources supervisor for the parks, which are owned by Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. "They just understand that it’s a new age and don't mind workers expressing themselves."
Other venues, including Dave & Busters in Overland Park, Main Event in Kansas City, North, and Chuck E. Cheese in Kansas City, all say employees can wear dreadlocks, regardless of length. The only exception is food workers, who are mandated to wear hairnets by the health department.
But dreadlocks have long been a point of contention in the American workplace.
In 2016, a black woman accused the St. Regis hotel in New York City of firing her from a "highly visible" concierge position because of her dreadlocks. In 2013, a 7-year-old girl in Tulsa, Okla., was forced to leave her charter school after officials forbade her dreadlocks, saying the hairstyle did not look "presentable." In 2013, a charter school in Lorain, Ohio, attempted to ban "afro-puffs and small twisted braids." Hampton University, a historically black college in Hampton, Va., infamously bans students enrolled in its five-year MBA program from having cornrows or dreadlocks.
The issue reached a tipping point in 2016 when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying companies can refuse to hire someone because of dreadlocks.
The EEOC was representing a Mobile, Ala., woman whose job offer was rescinded after her employer discovered she had dreadlocks. The agency argued the hairstyle was a "racial characteristic" used by employers to characterize black workers as "unfit," a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The court disagreed, saying that "race-neutral grooming policies" were not discriminatory since hairstyles "while culturally associated with race" are not immutable physical characteristics or cultural practices.
"Everyone keeps saying that it's legal, but that to me makes it even more insane," Garlington says. "This isn't right. This is not OK. Also, this isn't corporate. It's an arcade in Independence. Like, come on."
Despite the ruling, in recent years, institutional outlooks on dreadlocks and Afro-centric styles have evolved.
Facing backlash, the Tulsa school that forced the 7-year-old to leave nixed the part of its policy that named dreadlocks and afros as faddish and unacceptable. Facing outcry on social media, a Kentucky school suspended its hair policy that prohibited dreadlocks, cornrows, hair twists and braids.
In 2014, the U.S. military began reviewing its grooming and appearance policies after black servicewomen said its ban of large cornrows, dreadlocks and twists unfairly targeted black people. The Marine Corps lifted its ban against dreadlocks and twist hairstyles in 2015, and the Army followed suit in 2017.
Upon reading Garlington's Facebook post, commenters vowed to no longer patronize Cool Crest.
"What in the world!!!! I will not be supporting your establishment anymore as well Cool Crest. You are Applebees to me!" posted one commenter, referring to the incident of racism that helped lead to the closing of the Independence Center Applebee's.
"I was actually thinking about taking my multicultural family to cool crest next weekend. NEVERMIND AND NEVER AGAIN," said another.
Some business owners offered Tyree summer jobs.
"The responses and the support, it's warmed my heart to see," Garlington says.
"For better or worse, this is the world we live in."