The New York City Commission on Human Rights has passed a ban on discrimination based on hair, more specifically the wearing of natural hair. The “Legal Enforcement Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair” provides legal recourse in the case of discrimination and prohibitions based on hair styling. While the Commission details that the guidelines apply towards anyone, including cultural or religious communities with connections to uncut hair, the guidance provided is most explicitly directed at curbing anti-Black racism in employment, education and public spaces included.
The guidance directly addresses the discrimination in the workplace, school and daily life that black people face in choosing to wear their hair naturally, free of any heat or chemical treatments. While such discrimination has been a persistent problem, these guidelines come as the Commission investigates seven cases based on the wearing of natural hair. Such instances include black employees being told to wear hair up when other ethnicities are not required to do so, being fired for wearing natural hair and holding hairstyles as a condition for employment, among others.
Specific violations of the natural hair protections include policies that require natural hair styled into or discrimination against hair that is styled into “twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, fades, and/or locs” as well as policies that require employees to “straighten, relax, or otherwise manipulate their hair to conform to employer expectations.” Outside of the workplace, violations in school setting apply towards any harassment or disciplining of students because of their choice to wear their hair in a style “commonly associated with Black people.”
The guidance outlines that such policies are evidence of disparagement treatments based on race and that the new guidelines will extend protection from such discrimination outside of the workplace to all public accommodations. According to the New York Times, the commission can impose a fee of up to $250,000 to those found in violations of the guidelines with no limit on damages.
The guidelines detail that such practices are rooted in anti-black bias and that the actions taken by the Commission are to ensure that New Yorkers can live “free of stigma” in the city.
“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. “Policies that limit the ability to wear natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people aren’t about ‘neatness’ or ‘professionalism;’ they are about limiting the way Black people move through workplaces, public spaces and other settings.”
The passing of these guidelines protecting natural hair is without precedent in the federal court. While there was recently some leniency with the Marines approving braid and twist and loc styles in 2015 and the Army lifting a ban on dreadlocks in 2017, the protection and legality of natural and commonly black hairstyles have been absent. The passing of these guidelines only apply in New York City, but begins to provide a reprieve for the city’s black population and indicates a step in the direction of extending such protections to those outside of the city.