On Monday, the New York City Commission on Human Rights released new guidelines that classify any attempt to single people out based on their hair or hairstyle as racial discrimination.
The measure, thought to be the first of its kind nationwide, was enacted to protect people who have faced anti-Black racism, particularly in the form of hair-based discrimination. "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," the commission writes. Under the New York City Human Rights law, New Yorkers have the right to "maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities."
“There’s nothing keeping us from calling out these policies prohibiting natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with black people,” Carmelyn P. Malalis, the Chair and Commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, told the NY Times, adding that "they are based on racist standards of appearance."
Legally, employers are banned from any form of discrimination that dictates how someone wears their hair. This includes enacting inherently-racist "grooming policies" that prohibit employees from wearing their hair in "twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades which are commonly associated with Black people." Additionally, employers can't ask their employees to chemically relax or straighten their hair, and impose "unfair conditions, or otherwise discriminating against employees based on aspects of their appearance associated with their race."
One of my favorite photos of @BarackObama #PresidentsDay
Hair is a part of you. Race discrimination based on hair is illegal in NYC. #YourHairYourRightNYC@NYCCHR released new legal enforcement guidance addressing discrimination based on hair — https://t.co/NX1V9356g5 pic.twitter.com/LOBUcqVK5L
— Carmelyn P. Malalis (@CarmelynMalalis) February 18, 2019
As the NY Times notes, the measures came on the heels of investigations that looked into employee complaints of discrimination at several businesses across Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. Anti-black hair-based discrimination resulting in threats, harassment, and firing has long been pervasive. Destiny Tompkins, who formerly worked at the Banana Republic in White Plains, New York, sued the Gap, Inc. in 2017 on the grounds of discrimination: Tompkins says her manager, who was white, told her that her box braids were “unkempt” and not "Banana Republic appropriate."
Back in December, Andrew Johnson, a student at Buena Regional High School in Buena, New Jersey, was forced by a wrestling referee to cut off his dreadlocks moments before a match, or forfeit. The incident was captured on a video that went viral, ultimately resulting in the referee's ban from calling matches in the school district.
According to Times, individuals who violate these guidelines can face penalties in up to $250,000, with "no cap on damages."