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How to Succeed at a Summer Job: Look White and Christian

While young prospective workers in general are saddled with record levels of unemployment, young workers of color face an even bleaker economic outlook.

After a couple of advocacy internships in high schools, I thought I’d hit the big time when I landed a part-time gig at one of my favorite sportswear retailers during the summer after my freshman year in college. The store was situated nicely in downtown San Francisco, and for most of the summer I smiled and waved to greet customers, kept the displays tidy and ran shoe orders for the waves of customers and tourists who came in. I did it all as one part of a mostly young, seemingly hip multicultural staff who looked to be the perfect ambassadors for the company’s image. And then one day I made what ended up to be a game changing decision: I stopped straightening my hair and went natural.

My supervisor, a white male in his early thirties, never said anything directly to make me think that I had informally gone against company policy. But within a day I found myself tucked away on an upstairs floor, folding t-shirts and greeting the trickle of customers who could brave two flights of stairs to see over-priced backpacks.

I can’t be certain if it was my hair that shifted things. But after talking with several friends, I realized that my circumstances weren’t unique. And recent news shows that it can get much worse for young workers of color, who are discriminated against and sometimes fired because of their appearance or religion.

Whether it’s at McDonald’s, a local summer camp, or any number of retail stores, working through your teenage and college years has become a rite of passage in many communities. And for many it has long been an urgent necessity, either to pay for school or help make familial ends meet. But the recession and ensuing slow crawl toward recovery has changed all that. While young prospective workers in general are saddled with record levels of unemployment, young workers of color face an even bleaker economic outlook. And in an economy that is driven by the service and retail industries—industries that are notoriously image conscious—young workers of color may be more vulnerable than ever to the biases of their employers. 

Last month, 20-year-old college student Hani Khan made headlines when she filed suit against Hollister, a subsidiary of Abercrombie & Fitch, for religious discrimination. Khan is a practicing Muslim who wears a headscarf in accordance with religious tradition. Before she was hired in October of 2009 at a Northern California shopping mall, she was asked if she could wear a hijab that fell in line with the company’s official “Look Policy”, and she agreed. Khan had been working at the store for four months when, after restocking items, she was spotted by a district manager. Less than a week later, she was fired.

“When I was asked to remove my scarf after being hired with it on, I was demoralized and felt unwanted,” Khan  told the San Mateo County Times.

“For an employer to, point-blank, to require an employee to relinquish their religious practice is a violation of our cherished civil rights laws,” Zahra Kahn, executive director of the Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Times. “It’s really important that individual rights are protected and the 1964 Civil Rights Act is upheld.”

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the country’s workplace discrimination laws, agreed. After an investigation, the commission ruled in September that Khan had been wrongfully fired. After failed attempts to reach a settlement with the company, Khan decided to take her case to court.

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