Some African-Americans' hair and hairstyles have long been stigmatized for not meeting European beauty standards. Yet clean, natural hair is nothing to be ashamed of, and our culture has been gradually moving toward recognizing the beauty and normalcy of all types of hair.
Yet the stigma continues to hold in many areas of life, including employment. Far too often, African-Americans are forced to change their hair or even lose their jobs for sporting a head of natural hair -- or hairstyles like locs, braids, cornrows, Bantu knots, and others that are commonly associated with black people.
"There is a widespread and fundamentally racist belief that black hairstyles are not suited for formal settings, and may be unhygienic, messy, disruptive, or unkempt," says the New York City Commission on Human Rights in its new policy guidance on natural hair and black hairstyles.
That guidance makes clear for the first time that policies that restrict African-Americans' ability to wear natural or black hairstyles are discriminatory and violate the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).
Discrimination based on black hair is race discrimination
The Commission explains that African-Americans wear their hair as they do for a wide variety of reasons, starting with protecting it from over-styling and over-processing, which can cause damage or hair loss. They also wear their hair "as part of a cultural identity associated with being Black and/or for a myriad of other personal, financial, medical, religious, or spiritual reasons."
Because black hairstyles have protected characteristics, entities covered by the NYCHRL cannot treat them less favorably than other hairstyles. Those who do are guilty of disparate treatment, a form of race discrimination.
The NYCHRL provides legal recourse for hair discrimination
The NYCHRL applies to all providers of public accommodations, including employers with at least four employees, which includes certain independent contractors.
The new guidelines allow the Commission to levy a fine of up to $250,000 on entities found to have violated the NYCHRL by discriminating based on hair. Individuals can also file discrimination lawsuits with no cap on damages. Moreover, the Commission can force job reinstatement and policy changes on offending entities.
Policies the commission says would violate the NYCHRL include:
- Bans on black-associated hairstyles, or requiring hats or visors
- Grooming policies requiring alteration of black hair to meet a company's appearance standards
- Policies limiting hair extending more than a certain length from the scalp
- Requiring only black people to get supervisory approval before changing hairstyles
- Restricting employees from customer-facing positions due to their hair
- Restricting black hairstyles to promote a corporate image or due to customer preference
Policies instituted to address true health and safety issues are still legal, as long as they apply to everyone.
Want more timely employment law updates? Sign up for our newsletter.