“Black people have too often been forced to relinquish their preferred hairstyles in order to accommodate arbitrary and aesthetic expectations.”
We spend a lot of time thinking about hair – how it looks, whether we like our hairdresser, what products can boost its curls or stop it going frizzy.
But people with traditionally European or Asian hair don’t have to spend much time thinking about whether they will be rejected from a job or not allowed to go to school because of their natural hair or their chosen hairstyle.
Unfortunately, the policing of hair is something that still exists, and it disproportionately affects black people.
Stories abound of the many ways in which black people are discriminated against because of their hair – from the student sent home from school for wearing braids to the woman who said she was turned away from a temping agency because her dreadlocks violated the dress code. In 2017, one black woman told the Women and Equalities Committee that she had been told by an agency to chemically straighten her hair if she wanted a job at Harrods.
Despite the fact that many black people have faced prejudice based on their hair, legal protections against this kind of intolerance have been thin on the ground. But now New York has introduced new legal enforcement guidance banning discrimination based on hair or hairstyle.
The guidelines cover workplaces and schools, as well as places like gyms and nightclubs, and those find in violation face punishments including fines of up to $250,000 (approximately £194,000).
Examples of discrimination covered include grooming policies that ban hair styled intro twists, braids, cornrows and Afros, among others; disparaging or mistreating an employee based on their natural hair or hairstyle; and harassing or disciplining students who choose to wear their hair in a style commonly associated with black people.
The guidelines have been brought in by the NYC Commission on Human Rights, which says it is currently investigating seven cases involving discrimination based on hair or hairstyle.
The ruling has been welcomed by many, including co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum Kimberlé Crenshaw, who introduced and developed the theory of intersectionality.
“Black people have too often been forced to relinquish their preferred hairstyles in order to accommodate arbitrary and aesthetic expectations that require chemical alternations and manipulations to suppress or alter their natural hair texture,” she said. “These discriminatory demands not only undermine their physical well-being but also their access to employment, their enjoyment of educational opportunities, and their dignity.”
Crenshaw said the new guidance “clearly affirms” people’s right to wear their hair in their chosen style, and “precludes the singling out of black people that results from discomfort with certain hair textures and styles”.
While the new guidance won’t stop those who hold racist views, the threat of a fine may make people think twice before making arbitrary judgements about a person based on their hair or hairstyle.
And if the guidance expands to other places, there’ll hopefully be fewer stories of people losing job offers for refusing to change a part of who they are.
A previous version of this article stated that a black woman had been told by Harrods to straighten her hair if she wanted a job. This was incorrect. The woman told the Women and Equalities Committee that a recruitment agency had told her to chemically straighten her hair before applying for a job at Harrods. Stylist apologises for the error.
Images: Unsplash / Getty