A reservation agent at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington, under fire from the hotel's managers for wearing a cornrow hair style that they say violates hotel policy, filed a complaint yesterday with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.
Pamela Mitchell, 25, said the hotel is discriminating against her because of her race and her appearance. Mitchell, an employe of the hotel since February, has been threatened with dismissal because of her hair style. She expected it to happen Monday. Instead, hotel officials gave her a reprieve until they reviewed their policies.
Robert T. Souers, Marriott director of corporate relations, said yesterday the firm "will respond to the complaint as appropriate.
"We're looking into the matter and we would hope that we can come to some resolution that is in the best interests of all concerned," Souers said. "I think that given the fact that we are currently reviewing the standards that our response to these complaints would be based upon what the results of that review are."
The complaint is the first one filed with the rights office alleging discrimination against a woman for wearing cornrows, said Maudine Cooper, director of the office. Another complaint involving the Mitchell case was filed on Dec. 16 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Mitchell's attorney, Eric Steele, said at a news conference yesterday.
"If you ask a black woman to take her cornrows out, you're asking her to take away part of her African heritage," he said.
Mitchell had her hair braided into cornrows in November. She said she received compliments on the hair style from coworkers, even from managers who now are saying the braids are extreme.
Marriott corporate policy calls for employes to dress in a businesslike manner and avoid "extreme or faddish" styles, but "there is no explicit prohibition against cornrows in the hotel policy manual," Souers said. "Under the current policy and the way it is administered, general managers are given latitude in interpretation and implementation of the policies."
Steele, however, said that "cornrows are thousands of years old. Cleopatra wore cornrows. If it's a fad, the Guinness Book of World Records would have to classify it as the longest running fad in history."
In response to the complaint, the hotel must submit copies of the corporate policy to the rights office within 15 days. Rights officials then will hold a fact-finding conference with the parties, and take statements from witnesses if that is deemed necessary.
If it is determined there is probable cause to believe that discrimination has occurred, and if efforts at conciliation fail, the case will be sent to the city Commission on Human Rights.
"All of their business licenses would be in jeopardy," said Jim Mercer, the associate director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights.