updated 5/31/2005 3:22:19 PM ET 2005-05-31T19:22:19

An Alabama woman is seeking class-action status for a lawsuit against a Dillard's Inc. hair salon for allegedly charging black women more than white women.

Debbie Deavers Sturvisant alleges that a hair salon in a Tuscaloosa, Ala., Dillard's department store charged $35 to wash and set her hair, while white women paid $20 for the same service.

Sturvisant's lawsuit could bring a whole new level of attention to the general practice across the country of charging differently for hair care based on ethnicity.

Not all hair the same
Officials in Arizona, California, Florida, Maryland and Massachusetts have already addressed race- and sex-based pricing differences at hair salons.

"The stereotype is that all black hair is the same. But that's erroneous, just as all hair for Caucasians is not the same," said Patrick C. Cooper, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer who plans to represent thousands of affected customers. Sturvisant's lawsuit was filed in February.

Cooper said the department store's "policy completely ignores hair length, which should be the real determining factor in how much they charge. Pricing ought to be based on reality, not stereotypes, and Dillard's needs to stop what they're doing."

But Little Rock-based Dillard's says that's an oversimplification that distorts its policy.

"Dillard's does not charge different prices based upon the race of the customer," the company said in a statement. "Prices for salon services are based upon the level of experience of the stylist, degree of service, amount of time required and the cost of materials provided to the customer."

Tom McArthur, an instructor and manager of ABC Barber College in Hot Springs, Ark., said different charges based on race and sex are typical. Training manuals routinely note major differences between "black hair" and other ethnic groups' hair, he said. Also, he said, additional skills must be taught to cut the coarse, tightly curled hair commonly called "black hair."

"It's a whole new way of cutting. Not everyone can do it. I cut both and I do it pretty fast, but I grew up in this business," McArthur said.

Dillard's past discrimination cases
The more a stylist has to do with the hair, the more the customer can be charged. McArthur said that explains why women are generally charged about twice as much as men.

Still, civil-rights law expert Robert Belton said Dillard's could be in trouble if the pricing is determined solely on race, and not on other factors, like amount or style of hair.

"If they're saying that because of a person's color that it takes more time, then it's obvious that it's race," said Belton, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

He also said Dillard's could be hurt by past race discrimination cases, including a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that awarded $1.2 million to a black woman who alleged she was not allowed to sample cologne at a Kansas store.

But Dillard's is not alone in having to deal with new concerns about hair care. Eight women filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Hair Cuttery last year, saying the national salon chain unfairly charged black customers more. Also, Arizona, California, Massachusetts and Florida all passed new laws recently to curb pricing based solely on gender, according to a report in the Arizona Business Gazette.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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