CROWNing Glory: New York City Just Resolved Its First Hair Discrimination Case—and a Celebrity Stylist Is Going to Pay

Hairstylist Sally Hershberger attends the HSN Fall Fashion Lounge at the Empire Hotel on Sept. 8, 2014 in New York City.
Photo: Monica Schipper (Getty Images for HSN)

Heavy lies the crown,” they say—and for celebrity hairstylist Sally Hershberger, the punishment for the type of discriminatory practices that birthed the CROWN Act has come down heavy indeed, as she and business partner Sharon Dorram are on the losing end of a $70,000 civil lawsuit.

In fact, according to the New York Times, it was an investigation of multiple claims against Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger, an elite hair salon on New York City’s Upper East Side, that in part inspired the city’s landmark ban on hair discrimination. In February, the New York City Human Rights Commission announced it would begin considering practices and policies that discriminate based on hairstyles or textures—particularly against natural hair or hairstyles most commonly associated with black people—a form of racial discrimination (a move unrelated and prior to the establishment of the CROWN Act, which was first signed into law by California in March, followed by New York State in July).

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“This first-of-its-kind case resolution sends an important message to all employers that anti-Black hair discrimination has no place in our diverse city,” said Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The outcome of this case illustrates the Commission’s firm commitment to implementing its legal enforcement guidance on hair discrimination—and we hope that it will deter future violations of this nature.”

Perhaps surprisingly (or not), the complaints that led to the landmark ruling weren’t filed by the well-heeled clientele of Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger, an elite hair salon on the Upper East Side, where one of Hershberger’s haircuts averages a whopping $800 to $1,000. Instead, it was former workers at the salon who took action, after being told by management that their hairstyles didn’t fit a dress code implemented in 2015. Specifically: “Afros and box-braided hairstyles did not reflect the upscale image of the neighborhood,” reported the Times in February.

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Hershberger, who is perhaps best known for creating and maintaining Meg Ryan’s famous shag haircut, has also dressed the tresses of Michelle Obama and the First Family during their tenure in the White House. However, it was reportedly partner Dorram’s staff and policies at the source of the complaints—claims Dorram denied when interviewed by the Times, saying, “None of it is true.” Hershberger, a co-respondent due to her co-ownership, also denied the claims.

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Nevertheless, the Times reports:

Between 2016 and 2018, four complaints were filed to New York City’s human rights commission about the management and one senior stylist at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger. The resulting investigation into the salon led, in part, to the announcement last week of the city’s ban on discrimination based on hair.

The first complaint was filed in July 2016 by a former general manager who is white and said he felt sickened by being asked to implement an employee hair policy that he said was applied more to black workers than white ones. The second complaint was filed in December 2016 by a former receptionist, who is black and said she was a target of racial discrimination.

Two other complaints were filed in June 2018. One was from a former receptionist who is Hispanic and claimed she was asked to steer clients away from stylists who refused to sign a document attesting to the fairness of the salon’s dress code. The document, she said, stated that the dress code was longstanding and applied equally to black and white workers. (The fourth complaint was filed by a white stylist who said he was called an anti-Semitic slur and had his career threatened when he sought legal counsel. The complaints from 2018 were first reported by the New York Post.)

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Furthermore, David Speer, the former general manager at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger who filed the first complaint, told the Times the dress code was specifically requested by Dorram soon after the hiring of black receptionists Taren Guy, Raelene Roberts and Regine Aubourg. The code—which required black clothing and banned blue jeans, ripped apparel and nose rings—also included a mandate that shoulder-length hair be worn up or pulled back.

“I do not see anything wrong with having a style code—but it must be inclusive, respectful, and leave room for people of color, in this instance, African Americans,” Speer wrote in an email to Hershberger and financier Steven Tuttleman, also a co-respondent. “When I voiced concerns, I was told that if I couldn’t be supportive, I should leave.”

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As evidence, Speer shared damning text exchanges with Dorram that read (h/t New York Times):

“Today looked awful. Rail yne (sic) had her dreads down; Regine just got hers to match as long and of course Tarren (sic) All 3 at desk and we look like we should be on E. 134th Street. Sorry, nor(sic) racist just telling you we are on Mad. and 71st.”

Mr. Speer, who said he had made clear he found these statements offensive, replied by text, “And Madison can never be black. Is that right?”

Ms. Dorram responded to him saying that he was “missing the point.”

Another text message sent on the same day from Ms. Dorram to Mr. Speer said:

“Can’t be 3 girls at the desk. 2 like this and 1 w/ big Afro. What is our image Please instruct them not to wear hair down and no nose rings”

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Those rules apparently didn’t apply to a (presumably nonblack) Puerto Rican receptionist, who was reportedly told by Dorram, “We didn’t create this new rule because of you. You look beautiful with your hair down. It’s the other girls. Their hair looks disgusting.” The employee eventually quit in protest of what she considered a racist mandate.

Guy and Aubourg would also quit soon after the dress code was announced, but not before Aubourg, wearing box braids at the time, was purportedly told “Your hair is ugly” by a senior stylist. Aubourg didn’t pursue legal action, but Raelene Roberts, who also filed a complaint with the city, told the Times the hair rule was conditional, based upon how she wore her hair. After purportedly being asked by Dorram: “What are we going to do about your hair?” Roberts attempted to wear a wig to work, but was prohibited. “The next day, I blew out my hair straight and they liked that,” she told the Times, noting that by contrast, the hair-up rule was very lax for white employees.

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Dorram insisted that she simply preferred a “traditional” aesthetic in her salon, saying, “It’s what clients will expect.”

“We’re not 8th Street,” she told the Times. “We’re not downtown.”

“We’re the United Nations here,” she continued, identifying herself as a descendant of Holocaust survivors. “I have every nationality, every skin color. I’m a Jew who was married to an Arab and a German. I am not racist. I am not a bigot.”

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“Sally Hershberger is 100% against racist discrimination and all other types of discrimination in the workplace and beyond,” a statement from Hershberger’s spokeswoman to the Times simply read.

Concluding its investigation, the city’s Human Rights Commission disagreed. Despite an initial complainant’s grievance being withdrawn and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, the commission ruled that Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger is still liable for a $70,000 civil penalty, according to documents obtained by The Root.

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Additionally, the landmark ruling requires (verbatim):

  • Hershberger and Dorram personally must each complete community service with an organization that promotes Black beauty and combats hair discrimination.
  • Hershberger and Dorram must be trained in the styling, care and maintenance of natural hair, both personally and their employees. They must select an expert in the care and maintenance and styling of Black hair.
  • Hershberger Salon and Dorram Color must create an internship program that seeks out candidates from underrepresented backgrounds and provides internship experiences in the salons with potential for employment upon completion.
  • Policy revisions and training for all employees and respondents.

Psychologist, natural hair advocate, and director of the documentary Back to Natural Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward has since been hired by the salon to lead its required trainings.

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“Releasing our legal enforcement guidance on hair discrimination, which built on efforts of advocates, lawmakers, and scholars, was one of the steps we have taken to dismantle institutional racism and provide momentum for other jurisdictions to follow,” said Carmelyn P. Malalis, commissioner and chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights.

“This resolution is another step towards ensuring that racist notions of professional appearance standards are not applied in New York City,” Malalis continued. The restorative justice components incorporated into the resolution demonstrate the Commission’s commitment to repairing and re-investing in the communities impacted by discriminatory practices. These restorative remedies move beyond punishment to focus on repairing harm and achieving lasting justice and equity.”

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Updated: Wednesday, 11/13/19 at 3:13 p.m., ET: An earlier version of this article inferred that the New York City Commission on Human Rights’ ban on hair discrimination was part of the CROWN Act, when in fact, it preceded it. The article has been edited for clarification.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.