A Black police officer in New Jersey has filed a discrimination lawsuit against Maplewood Township after she was disciplined for wearing a traditional African hairstyle. Per NBC News, the plaintiff, Chian Weekes-Rivera, in the lawsuit alleges that the township disciplined her “for having Black hair” – which she said goes against the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
The law in question “prohibits unlawful employment discrimination based on an individual’s race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, ancestry, age, sex (including pregnancy), familial status, marital/civil union status, religion, domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait, genetic information, liability for military service, and mental or physical disability (including perceived disability, and AIDS and HIV status).”
Besides the township, Weekes-Rivera also named Maplewood police captain Peter Kuenzel as a defendant in the lawsuit. In the suit, Weekes-Rivera said she showed up to work on August 20 wearing a Bantu knots hairstyle. But she received an Internal Affairs complaint after eleven days. The complaint informed her that her hairstyle did not go in line with the department’s on-duty dress code, the lawsuit states, adding that the plaintiff’s sergeants were similarly disciplined as a result of their “failure to supervise” for declining to discipline Weekes-Rivera, NBC News reported.
Kuenzel in another notice told Weekes-Rivera that she had violated the department’s dress code policy for wearing a hairstyle that had “rollers.” “To get that paper, it was cringeworthy,” Weekes-Rivera recalled. “I had to ask him questions to stop myself from crying.”
Weekes-Rivera in the lawsuit alleges that the defendants targeted and disciplined her “as a result of her race and ethnicity.”
“Maplewood is trying to send a chilling message to the entire department that not only are we going to discriminate against Chian, we are going to hold other people accountable for not discriminating against her,” the plaintiff’s attorney said.
In 2018, a Black varsity high school wrestler in New Jersey, Andrew Johnson, made national headlines after a referee forced him to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a match, Face2Face Africa reported. That incident in question sparked a racial discrimination conversation. A state civil rights inquest was also launched.
Weekes-Rivera also made mention of Johnson’s experience in the lawsuit, stating that “Black hair goes beyond just cultural differences” and is a display of identity and culture, NBC News reported.
“I cried when I saw that,” she said in reference to Johnson’s experience. “I’m a woman with locs. And for this young man to be told, ‘You can’t play because of your hair,’ it’s heartbreaking. What do you tell Black children? What do you tell Black people who just want to love themselves and thrive like everyone else? We can’t control how our hair grows and how we might be different from the masses. To love yourself however you wake up, it’s hard to do.”