Though it may sound ridiculous for someone to be fired for wearing their hair as it naturally grows, that’s the reality many black women face in the workplace.
Now, thanks to the New York City Commission of Human Rights, such judgment and mistreatment of people because of their hair or hairstyle will be considered a form of racial discrimination at work, in school, or in public areas in the city.
The law enforcement agency will release new guidelines this week, which equate bias against hair types with racial discrimination, the New York Times reports.
Today, the New York City Commission on Human Rights releases legal guidance on our protections and enforcement actions against racial discrimination on the basis natural hair and hairstyles: https://t.co/ofDAttCZbQ#YourHairYourRightNYCpic.twitter.com/24MocBzk9Z— NYC Human Rights (@NYCCHR) February 18, 2019
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The guidelines apply to anyone living and working in the city, but officials say they are specifically designed to protect black people from workplace discrimination.
“There’s nothing keeping us from calling out these policies prohibiting natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with black people,” said Carmelyn P. Malalis, the commissioner and chairwoman of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. “They are based on racist standards of appearance,” and perpetuate “racist stereotypes that say black hairstyles are unprofessional or improper.”
Black women are twice as likely to feel pressure to straighten their hair in the workplace than white women, according to a study by the Perception Institute. Despite being from different racial backgrounds, most of the surveyed participants showed an implicit bias against black women with natural hair.
“Far too often, black people are shamed and excluded from jobs or school because of objections to natural hairstyles, but courts have been slow to recognize that bias against natural black hair is a form of race discrimination," Ria Tabacco Mar, ACLU senior staff attorney, said in a press statement.
"Today, New York City has taken an important step toward ensuring that all of us have the freedom to work and learn regardless of how we wear our hair,” she added.
The new guidelines emphasize people’s right to maintain and express their cultural, racial, or ethnic identities by wearing “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”
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The decision to formally protect this right is based on the idea that hair is an undetachable part of one’s race and cultural identity, according to the New York Times. The guidelines help to enshrine the people’s freedom to wear their hair as they choose as a human right and give similar protections that provisions against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and other protected classes do.
“Bias against the curly textured hair of people of African descent is as old as this country and a form of race-based discrimination,” said First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, the wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a statement.
Despite this, there is no legal precedent in federal law that protects people from discrimination on the basis of their textured or cultural hairstyles.
Last year, the Supreme Court was asked to review a case where a black woman, Chastity Jones, had a job offer rescinded because she refused to remove her dreadlocks. However, the Supreme Court refused the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s request to evaluate the case.
Hair discrimination is also common outside of office settings. In 2017, twin 16-year-olds, Mya and Deana Cook, were threatened with suspension by their charter school in Massachusetts for having hair extensions in their box braids, a common cultural style in the black community, often worn to protect natural hair from being damaged. The girls ultimately served detention for breaking their school’s dress code. During the controversial case, many pointed out that white students at the same institution were allowed to wear hair extensions in other styles without being punished.
Last year, sixth-graders Faith Fennidy and Tyrielle Davis, were sent home from their school in Terrytown, Louisiana for having box braids, which the school said violated its new policy. The girls remained out of school for several days due to the incident.
After their families claimed that the girls’ extended absence from class was causing irreparable harm, a judge signed a temporary restraining order against the school, allowing the girls to return to class.
But it’s not just girls and women who grapple with hair discrimination.
High school student Andrew Johnson was told by a referee during a wrestling match that he had to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit his match in December. He chose the former, and the video of him being forced to shave off his hair on sidelines of the match sparked outrage on social media.
Epitome of a team player ⬇️— Mike Frankel (@MikeFrankelTV) December 20, 2018
A referee wouldn't allow Andrew Johnson of Buena @brhschiefs to wrestle with a cover over his dreadlocks. It was either an impromptu haircut, or a forfeit. Johnson chose the haircut, then won by sudden victory in OT to help spark Buena to a win. pic.twitter.com/f6JidKNKoI
Bias toward black hair is also common internationally.
A 5-year-old was banned from going to a school in Jamaica after refusing to cut off her dreadlocks, which the family declined to do saying it conflicted with their beliefs. The Supreme Court later ruled in favor of the family, allowing the girl to return to school.
Students at Pretoria Girls’ High in South Africa said teachers called their hair "exotic" and said that their afros needed to be tamed. The comments led to protests, which went viral.
New York City’s guidelines are believed to be the first of their kind in the US, making the city the first place to formally protect against hair texture-based discrimination in the entire country.
"In New York City, we want to make the bold statement that these prohibitions on hairstyles that are closely associated with black people are a form of race discrimination," Malalis told BuzzFeed News.
The trend toward embracing natural hair is even beginning to see changes in the military. The United States Army lifted its ban on dreadlocks in 2017 and the Marines approved several natural hairstyles in 2015.
The New York City commission is already investigating seven cases surrounding discrimination based on hairstyles. Under these new guidelines, offenders can face up to a $250,000 fine and damages, without limit. The commission can also enforce rehirings and internal policy changes within companies found guilty of hair discrimination.
"Hair is an incredibly personal thing," said Malalis. "Hair is a part of you, and as such we want to make sure that people can express themselves."