Is Your Hairstyle Protected?
March 14, 2019
Lía Fiol-Matta, Esq. and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
People of color, particularly of African descent, may now let their hair down… or not… at least in New York City.
Joining a movement brewing across the nation, New York issued the first guidance in the United States to prevent racial discrimination associated with hairstyle. On February 18, 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) published its “Legal Enforcement Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair” (www1.nyc.gov/assets/cchr/downloads/pdf/Hair-Guidance.pdf), addressing “discrimination based on characteristics and cultural practices associated with being Black, including prohibitions on natural hair or hairstyles mostly associated with Black people.” The guidance establishes that “the right to maintain natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state” are protected under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). This protection extends to “communities that have a religious or cultural connection with uncut hair, including Native Americans, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Nazirites, or Rastafarians”.
The new measure comes on the heels of a highly denounced incident in December 2018 in New Jersey, in which an African American teenage wrestler was forced by a referee to make a last-moment decision to cut his locks or forfeit his match. The young athlete, Andrew Johnson, was told he could not compete with long hair although he was wearing his usual headgear and covering. The referee argued that his locks violated rules by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. With only seconds to make a decision, Johnson allowed authorities to cut his locks. After public outcry over what was considered a racially discriminatory decision, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR) opened an investigation into the matter.
Another high-profile case involved African American former news anchor Brittany Noble Jones, who was fired from her anchor job, in Mississippi, in 2018, after she decided to change her hairstyle from chemical straightening, sew-ins and wigs to her natural locs. After only one month of doing so, her supervisor deemed her hair “unprofessional” and asked Noble Jones to change her hairstyle back to previous looks. She was terminated after filing internal complaints and a discrimination charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
In 2018, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a case that was petitioned by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), originally brought by the EEOC, on behalf of Chastity Jones, who is African American. Jones suffered racial discrimination when an employer rescinded a job offer because she refused to cut off her dreadlocks Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, No. 14-13482 (11 Cir. 2017). The EEOC alleged that race includes “cultural characteristics related to race and ethnicity”, including grooming practices and dreadlocks.
The NYCCHR is currently investigating seven natural hairstyle discrimination cases involving individuals forced to pull back their braided hairstyles or terminated for wearing their natural hair down because their employers deemed their hairstyles “unclean”. If there is a safety concern, employers must exhaust every possible option, like hairnets, ties and alternative safety equipment, before imposing a ban or restriction on hairstyles.
In exercising the right to require a work appropriate appearance pertaining to employees, employers in New York City many not enact discriminatory policies that force employees of color to straighten, relax or manipulate their hair nor prohibit hairstyles commonly associated with people of African descent, to comply with employer rules. These new protections apply, not only to workplaces, but also to schools, places of public accommodation and public spaces, such as restaurants, fitness clubs, nightclubs, museums, parks, libraries and other places covered under the NYCHRL.
Individuals interested in discussing possible violations of the NYCHRL and exploring their legal rights under this law are encouraged to consult an employment attorney.
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