Don’t Get It Twisted: New York City Bans Natural Hair Discrimination

February 20, 2019  |  

Woman at cafe

Source: M_a_y_a / Getty

New York City is stepping up its efforts to eliminate discrimination based on texture, explicitly protecting Black people in school and on the job. According to The New York Times, the New York City Commission of Human Rights has released new guidelines that define punitively targeting people based on how they wear their as racial discrimination because hairstyle and texture are a form of racial expression.

The language used in the law is extensive in covering the myriad configurations in which Black people wear their naturally textured hair. The new law meticulously spells out that New Yorkers have the right to wear 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.” That language leaves very little room for anyone to find issue with the way natural hair is styled.

While it should have been enough to state that it is illegal to discriminate based on the styling of a person’s natural hair, there’s a reason that the law had to be so explicit. Black people have faced disciplinary action at work for their hair, and children have even been denied entry to their schools, based on dress codes that deem most natural hairstyles as unprofessional. Now, these codes don’t directly come out and state that Black people’s natural hairstyles are unacceptable to their organizations, institutions, establishments, but the language they use is heavily coded and it disproportionately affects Black people. Braids (and locs, by extension), for example, are often directly mentioned as hairstyles that violate these codes. Restrictions on how long men can wear their hair also heavily affect Black men because they indirectly prohibit them from wearing almost anything but a close-cropped look.

Many of these dress codes have been in place for decades, and that’s continued to present a problem as more Black people embrace natural styles within those parameters. Remember: it wasn’t until 2017 that the U.S.miliary lifted its ban on natural hairstyles that fell within the parameters of its dress code; the U.S. Navy expanded its dress code to account for servicemembers who wear their hair in braids and locs. Privately owned establishments like charter schools and small businesses, however, have been able to keep their discriminatory guidelines in place because their organizational structure legally allows them to maintain whatever standards they wish. Under NYC’s new law, though, these institutions can no longer legally use those dress codes to discriminate against Black people.

It used to be standard that Black women would straighten their hair or wear wigs and weaves for the purposes of assimilation; black men would just stick to wearing short styles. It’s just what you did, and it was something many Black women were socialized with from a very young age (can you even remember the first time someone pressed your hair?). That is changing now as many of us have been finding new ways to wear our natural texture and care for it. We’re becoming more invested in our natural beauty on a larger scale than ever before. The natural hair movement is not a new thing by any stretch of the imagination, but the community around it continues to expand as we share information on how more of us can rock what we were born with. In the office and at school, that means we get to see a fantastic array of self-expression through hair–some of which can help others to find their style. We know–hell, everybody knows–that the way you wear your hair does not determine your intellect, capability, or talent.

As such, it’s been time for the law to catch up with the times because many privately owned establishments have shown that they won’t. Furthermore, employees of these same privately owned businesses have demonstrated time and again how they will use these policies at their discretion as a cover for their discriminatory leanings. Put plainly, these employees will use a dress code that is heavily biased against Black people to keep Black people out of their spaces, knowing that outright racial discrimination is illegal. Worse yet, there wasn’t much that we could do about it besides protest and hope for a change. The new law in New York City not only takes that weapon away from them, but it protects us from further racial discrimination. It allows us to feel a little safer. I’m hoping the rest of the state–and the nation–quickly follows this example. It shouldn’t have taken this long to do it, but I’m glad that it’s getting done somewhere.

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