The New York City Commission on Human Rights has released guidelines against targeting people on the basis of their hairstyle, classing this as racist discrimination.
The guidelines aim to protect the rights of New Yorkers in schools, work places and public places, where black people are disproportionately affected by policies banning hairstyles such as afros, cornrows and locs.
A report from the commission said black hairstyles are often deemed “unprofessional” and by limiting how workers and students wear their hair, organisations “perpetuate racist stereotypes”.
NYC Human Rights Commissioner Chair Carmelyn P Malalis said hairstyle policies were not about professionalism but rather a way of “limiting the way black people move through workplaces, public spaces and other settings”.
She said the guidelines will help organisations “understand that black New Yorkers have the right to wear their hair however they choose without fear of stigma or retaliation”.
‘You police yourself’
Brittny Saunders and Demoya Gordon were both part of the team at the commission writing the guidelines and could offer personal experiences of hair discrimination.
“When I started work, I chemically straightened my hair because I understood that the expectation would be that I would present myself with straight hair,” said Ms Saunders. “It would be against expectations to have natural hair.”
“You police yourself accordingly,” agreed Ms Gordon.
“When I started going to interviews at law firms I knew that there would already be a lot of scepticism about my place as a black woman in that space and that wearing my locs down would not be considered ‘professional’.
“It was almost 6 years into my career that I stopped pinning my locs up and started wearing them down most of the time.
“It was only when I moved from working in a law firm to a non-profit organisation that I felt able to do this and even then I would still wear it up when I had to go to court or take a deposition.”
Businesses found to have flouted the guidelines could face fines of up to $250,000 (£191,000).
‘This is not our look’
But this is not a problem specific to New York.
One woman from London, who preferred not to be named, said she was once sent home from working in a clothes shop because she wore her hair in braids. She was 18 at the time.
“They said: ‘Go home, take those braids out of your hair- this is not our look.’ But the hairstyle they did want was a straight hair weave, which is not natural. They wanted me to adhere to European standards of beauty,” she said.
Now aged 26, she said that at the time she did not question her managers because she did not feel she could. “I wish someone would,” she added.
Now working in a more relaxed workplace, she wears her hair in an afro, but has black female friends who wear a “work wig” in an attempt to “fit in, to cause less tension for themselves”.
A 23-year-old from the UK said her school which was majority white, banned “extreme” hairstyles.
“I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it meant cornrows. They said they were gang affiliated,” she said. Afros were also banned, described as “distracting”.
“I relaxed my hair when I was 13 because when it was straight they didn’t mind,” she added.
Commissioner Malalis emphasised the importance of the guidelines in schools. “It’s so important for young people to themselves and to be valued for who they are,” she said.