NEW YORK – 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.
The move was prompted in part by investigations after complaints from workers at two Bronx businesses — a medical facility in Morris Park and a nonprofit in Morrisania — as well as workers at an Upper East Side hair salon and a restaurant in Queens. (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 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.
First legal protection of hair
To date, there is no legal precedent in federal court for the protection of hair. Indeed, last spring the U.S. Supreme Court refused an NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund request to review a case in which a black woman, Chastity Jones, had her job offer rescinded in 2010 at an Alabama insurance company after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks.
But New York City's human rights commission is one of the most progressive in the nation; it recognizes many more areas of discrimination than federal law, including in employment, housing, pregnancy and marital status. Its legal enforcement bureau can conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses and prosecute violations.
"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, commissioner and chairwoman of the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
"They are based on racist standards of appearance," 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.
For Avery, 39, who works in Manhattan in court administration and declined to provide her last name for fear of reprisal at work, the answer to how often she fields remarks on her hair in a professional setting is "every day."
Avery said her supervisor, who is white, encourages her to relax her hair, which she was wearing in shoulder-length chestnut-colored braids. "She's like, 'You should do your hair,' when it is already styled, or she says, 'straight is better,' " Avery said.
Georbina DaRosa, who is interning to be a social worker, had her hair in box braids as she ate lunch with a colleague at Shake Shack on East 86th Street on a recent weekend afternoon. DaRosa said her hair sometimes elicited "microaggressions" from her superiors at work.
"Like, people say, 'I wouldn't be able to recognize you because you keep changing your hairstyle'; that's typical," said DaRosa, 24.
Her lunch partner, Pahola Capellan, who is also black and whose ringlets were bobbed just above her shoulders, said, of her own experience: "It's very different. There's no discrimination because my hair is more acceptable."
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 U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who represents Massachusetts, 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," Huq said.