The New York City Commission on Human Rights is taking a major step in ensuring that none of the city’s residents are victims of hair bias. This week, the commission is releasing new guidelines that equate discrimination against any hairstyle within a workplace, school or public space with racial discrimination.
While the new amendment to the New York City Human Rights Law will protect all residents and visitors of New York City, it was specifically created to combat anti-black racism. “While grooming and appearance policies adversely impact many communities, this legal enforcement guidance focuses on policies addressing natural hair or hairstyles most commonly associated with Black people, who are frequent targets of race discrimination based on hair,” reads the formal announcement by the commission (pdf), which also notes:
Anti-Black racism is an invidious and persistent form of discrimination across the nation and in New York City. Anti-Black racism can be explicit and implicit, individual and structural, and it can manifest through entrenched stereotypes and biases, conscious and unconscious. Anti-Black bias also includes discrimination based on characteristics and cultural practices associated with being Black, including prohibitions on natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with Black people. Bans or restrictions on natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people are often rooted in white standards of appearance and perpetuate racist stereotypes that Black hairstyles are unprofessional. Such policies exacerbate anti-Black bias in employment, at school, while playing sports, and in other areas of daily living. The New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities. For Black people, this includes the right to maintain 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.
The new guidelines will provide anyone who has experienced discrimination, punishment or harassment due to their chosen hairstyle or texture with legal recourse. Those found in violation of the law can face a penalty of up to $250,000, with no cap on damages. The commission may also compel policy changes and re-hirings in instances of proven discrimination within companies. Notably, the guidelines will not interfere with health and safety mandates which may require hair to be worn up or in a net, so long as those mandates are unilateral, as the commission outlines.
By way of example, while an employer can impose requirements around maintaining a work appropriate appearance, they cannot enforce such policies in a discriminatory manner and/or target specific hair textures or hairstyles. Therefore, a grooming policy to maintain a “neat and orderly” appearance that prohibits locs or cornrows is discriminatory against Black people because it presumes that these hairstyles, which are commonly associated with Black people, are inherently messy or disorderly. This type of policy is also rooted in racially discriminatory stereotypes about Black people, and racial stereotyping is unlawful discrimination under the NYCHRL. ...
Finally, employers may not ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black communities to promote a certain corporate image, because of customer preference, or under the guise of speculative health or safety concerns. An employee’s hair texture or hairstyle generally has no bearing on their ability to perform the essential functions of a job.
As the New York Times reports, the move makes New York City—already one of the most stringent on anti-discrimination laws in the country—ahead of the curve when it comes to confronting hair bias, which has recently made headlines around the country for affecting children as young as six years old.
With this in mind, the commission also rightly addresses both the physical and psychological dangers of hair mandates, using as examples historic perceptions of black hair that date back to slavery, the recently loosened regulations of the United States Army, and the very real risks of hair and scalp damage as a result of chemical styling. The commission even cites the significant financial impact of such mandates, as well as evidence presented by the American Journal of Epidemiology that links hair relaxers to the development of uterine fibroids.
Race discrimination based on hair and hairstyles most closely associated with Black people has caused significant physical and psychological harm to those who wish to maintain natural hair or specific hairstyles but are forced to choose between their livelihood or education and their cultural identity and/or hair health. Due to repeat manipulation or chemically-based styling (i.e., using straighteners or relaxing hair from its natural state), Black hair may become vulnerable to breakage and loss ... In some cases, altering hair from its natural form by way of repeat manipulation or chemically-based styling may also expose individuals to risk of severe skin and scalp damage. Medical harm may also extend beyond the skin or scalp; for instance, a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology linked the use of hair relaxers to an increase in uterine fibroids, which disproportionately impact Black women.
“There’s nothing keeping us from calling out these policies prohibiting natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with black people,” Carmelyn P. Malalis, commissioner and chairwoman of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, told the New York Times. “They are based on racist standards of appearance.”
Notably, New York City’s current first lady, Chirlane McCray, is a longtime wearer of locs, as is first daughter Chiara de Blasio (son Dante, long identified by his large Afro, wrote an op-ed last year about the racism he faced within the school system his father, Bill de Blasio, now runs).
The city’s new guidelines are an expansion of its current human rights laws, which includes the sale and display of racist iconography, a lesson learned by Prada when it was issued a cease-and-desist by the commission amid the controversy caused by products that evoked blackface on display in its SoHo flagship last December. That mandate, coupled with the new protections for black hair, are an overdue but progressive step in ensuring a more equitable and comfortable environment for all in America’s largest city, as the commission’s announcement states:
“Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the NYCHRL because they are an inherent part of Black identity.”