New York City to Ban Discrimination Based on Hair

Stacey Stowe, New York Times, February 18, 2019

Under new guidelines to be released this week by the New York City Commission on Human Rights, the targeting of people based on their hair or hairstyle, at work, school or in public spaces, will now be considered racial discrimination.

The change in law applies to anyone in New York City but is aimed at remedying the disparate treatment of black people; the guidelines specifically mention the right of New Yorkers to maintain their “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.”

In practice, the guidelines give legal recourse to individuals who have been harassed, threatened, punished, demoted or fired because of the texture or style of their hair. The city commission can levy penalties up to $250,000 on defendants that are found in violation of the guidelines and there is no cap on damages. The commission can also force internal policy changes and rehirings at offending institutions.

{snip} (The new guidelines do not interfere with health and safety reasons for wearing hair up or in a net, as long as the rules apply to everyone.)

The guidelines, obtained by The New York Times before their public release, are believed to be the first of their kind in the country. They are based on the argument that hair is inherent to one’s race (and can be closely associated with “racial, ethnic, or cultural identities”) and is therefore protected under the city’s human rights laws, which outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion and other protected classes.

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“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,” Ms. Malalis continued, saying that they perpetuate “racist stereotypes that say black hairstyles are unprofessional or improper.”

In New York, it isn’t difficult to find black women and men who can speak about how their hair has affected their lives in both subtle and substantial ways, ranging from veiled comments from co-workers to ultimatums from bosses to look “more professional” or find another job.

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There has long been a professional toll for those with certain hairstyles. Almost 18 percent of United States soldiers in active duty are black, but it is only in recent years that the military has dropped its prohibitions on hairstyles associated with black culture. The Marines approved braid, twist and “lock” (usually spelled loc) hairstyles in 2015, with some caveats, and the Army lifted its ban on dreadlocks in 2017.

And certain black hairstyles are freighted with history. Wearing an Afro in the 1960s, for instance, was often seen as a political statement instead of a purely aesthetic choice, said Noliwe Rooks, an author and professor at Cornell University whose work explores race and gender. Dr. Rooks said that today, black men who shave designs into their hair as a stylistic choice may be perceived as telegraphing gang membership.

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Chaumtoli Huq, an associate professor of labor and employment law at City University of New York School of Law, said that attitudes will change as black politicians, like Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia, and Ayanna Pressley, who represents Massachusetts in Congress, rise in prominence.

“As more high-profile black women like Abrams and Pressley opt for natural hairstyles, twists, braids, we may see a positive cultural shift that would impact how courts view these guidelines that seek to prevent discrimination based on hair,” Ms. Huq said.

Hair discrimination affects people of all ages. In the past several years, there have been a number of cases of black students sent home or punished for their hairstyles. {snip}

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In December, the commission issued a cease-and-desist order to Prada, the Italian luxury fashion house, after the window of its SoHo store was adorned with charms and key chains featuring blackface imagery.

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