By Gabriella Staykova, Staff Writer
New guidelines from New York City’s Commission on Human Rights ban discrimination based on hair at school, work, or any other public space. The rules come at a time of growing national awareness of the natural hair stigma many African-Americans face, as well as several localized complaints of employer harassment.
This is nothing new. As anyone with natural hair will tell you, employers often pressure their black employees to straighten their hair, cut it short, or avoid styling it in ways with cultural significance, like dreadlocks or afros. These ideas, rooted in stereotypes about black impropriety, are justified by the need to “maintain a professional corporate image,” and they lead to unaddressed hiring discrimination.
Just in 2017, the business Catastrophe Management Solutions rescinded Chastity Jones’ offer of employment when she refused to cut off her dreadlocks, which went against the company’s “race-neutral dress code.” The 11th Circuit of Appeals permitted this, claiming that despite the significance dreadlocks hold within the black community, the action was permitted because discrimination, as described by Title VII, is only based on unchangeable characteristics, and dreadlocks “though culturally associated with race—are not an immutable characteristic of black persons.”
The ruling enforced a truth long-known by the black community: you’ll only be taken seriously in professional fields if your hair is straightened. Many women find themselves combing out their dreadlocks or chemically treating their hair just to be perceived as employable.
But even after the hiring process, biases around natural hair encourage a workplace atmosphere of alienation and preferential treatment, just as Enie experienced. Enie, a woman interviewed by The New York Times for their article on the issue, explained that she quit her job after her manager demanded she cut her hair extensions because they were too long, while other women had hair the same length or longer but were left unbothered.
In the long run, the stigma against natural hair cuts deeper than hiring biases and off-color comments and hurts those most vulnerable: youths. Consistently seeing black women change their hair to be “professional,” and hearing descriptions of natural hair as “unkempt” or flat out “ugly” creates damaging, unrealistic beauty standards and destroys the self-esteem of young African-Americans.
The new NYC rules have been hailed as an amazing first step in building acceptance by natural hair advocates, but many women say little will change. Hair stylist Glen Ettienne, speaking to NPR, says that “when you walk in for the interview and they see you have a certain hairstyle, they are going to find some reason to not hire you.”
These guidelines don’t promise to end hiring discrimination, and Ettienne is right, they most likely won’t. But they do provide a defense for employees with natural hair: a steep fine of $250,000 maximum that will deter most passive-aggressive comments.
“Discrimination is not going to end here in America,” Glen says. But we’re going in the right direction.