The New York City Commission on Human Rights has published legal enforcement guidance that would make race discrimination on the basis of hair illegal. Under the new guidelines, the targeting of people based on their hair or hairstyle at work, school, or in public spaces will now have a penalty up to $250,000.
The commission can also force internal policy changes at offending institutions.
According to the official document, “the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.”
Although an employer can enforce policies around maintaining a professional or work appropriate appearance, they cannot enforce restrictions that target a specific hairstyle or hair texture.
In a press release, NYC Human Rights Commissioner Chair Carmelyn Malalis said hairstyle policies are not based on professionalism but racist standards of appearance that are “limiting the way black people move through workplaces, public spaces, and other settings.” According to Malalis, the guidelines will help organizations “understand that black New Yorkers have the right to wear their hair however they choose without fear of stigma or retaliation.”
Policies that would be in violation of New York City’s Human Rights Law include policies that prohibit twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades which are commonly associated with Black people. Violations also include requiring an employee to alter the state of their hair to conform to specific standards, including having to straighten their hair or use chemicals.
In addition, the legal guidelines address the wrongful implementation of policies prohibiting certain hairstyles “ to promote a certain corporate image, because of a customer preference, or under the guise of speculative health or safety concerns.” In cases where there is a legitimate health or safety concern, alternatives to a ban or restriction such as head coverings, nets or hair ties should be used.
The guidelines were created following investigations after workers at two Bronx businesses, a medical facility in Morris Park and a nonprofit in Morrisania, as well as workers in Queens, filed complaints against their employers the New York Times reported.
According to the complaints, employees were asked to alter their natural hairstyle to fit a company preference or image. The complaints were on the basis of the companies imposing appearance requirements in a discriminatory manner meant to target specific hair textures.
In an interview with BBC News, Brittny Saunders and Demoya Gordon, both part of the team at the commission writing the guidelines, expressed personal encounters of hair discrimination.
“When I started work, I chemically straightened my hair because I understood that the expectation would be that I would present myself with straight hair,” Saunders said in the interview. “It would be against expectations to have natural hair.”
Gordon expressed similar experiences stating that one often has to police themselves.
“When I started going to interviews at law firms I knew that there would already be a lot of skepticism about my place as a black woman in that space and that wearing my locs down would not be considered ‘professional’. It was almost 6 years into my career that I stopped pinning my locs up and started wearing them down most of the time,” Gordon said.
In the last few years, numerous cases have been recorded where black students have been sent home or workers have been punished for their hairstyles. Hair discrimination has affected all ages nationwide. Including New Jersey, when high school student, Andrew Johnson was told to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match. And in Alabama, where Chastity Jones had her job offer rescinded after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks in 2010.
Enforcing punishment for hair discrimination comes as a stepping stone towards diversity rights in the state. New York is known for its diversity but is no stranger to workplace discrimination.
Workplace discrimination takes place in various forms from outright being prejudice against a race or culture to hiding bias behind policies such as those related to hair and appearance. By expanding race discrimination policies to include hair, New York has allowed many individuals to hope for a more accepting and comfortable work environment.
It’s time we stop conforming to the ecocentric standards of what is proper etiquette and what is not, but also what we deem as the model of beauty and professionalism. Hair is inherent to one’s race and can be closely associated with racial, ethnic, or cultural identities. Just like how one’s skin color can often be an indicator of their race or ethnic origin, one’s hair can also be.
In many cultures, hair depicts pride and diversity. So forcing people to conform to standards that alter their natural hair we, in turn, belittle them. By categorizing certain hair types as less than others we perpetuate racism.
While New York is the first state to address hair discrimination, one could only hope other states will follow and continue to fight further against discrimination in all forms.