Banning ethnic hairstyles ‘upholds this notion of white supremacy.’ States pass laws to stop natural hair discrimination

Clinton Stanley Jr. was excited about his first day at a new private school in suburban Orlando, Florida. 

His father, Clinton Sr., thought A Books Christian Academy, with its small class sizes and rigorous curriculum, was the perfect fit for his 6-year-old.

But the child never made it inside his first grade classroom. The father and son arrived only to have an administrator stop them at the entrance and demand the boy leave to cut his hair. The administrator cited a school policy banning dreadlocks.

The rejection confused the outgoing boy, who’d been raised to express himself and asked for locks when he was 4 years old so he could be like his godfather, an NFL player. 

“It still bothers me,” Stanley says, his voice shaking with sadness. “It was a hurtful experience.”

Clinton Jr. is not alone. Black people young, old and in between have been rejected from jobs, schools and other public places because of the texture and style of their hair. 

But that’s changing. Several states and cities this year have passed or proposed laws banning policies that penalize people of color for wearing natural curls, dreadlocks, twists, braids and other hairstyles that embrace their cultural identity. 

Hairstyle laws: Cincinnati outlaws discrimination based on natural hairstyles associated with race

California and New York were the first states to enact laws this summer forbidding race-based hair discrimination. New Jersey, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky as well as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Montgomery County, Maryland, have followed with proposed legislation. 

Many black women say they’ve felt pressured for decades to use excessive heat, chemical relaxers and weaves to conform to European standards of straight hair. This often means spending hundreds of dollars a month – and countless hours – at hair salons. According to Nielsen, black consumers spent $473 million on hair care in 2017. 

Much of the pressure, black women say, has come from employers and school officials who don’t view locks or braids as the neat, professional hairstyle they require or might see the looks as a political or aggressive statement, or signal the wearer isn’t interested in “fitting in.”   

It’s also become an issue in sports. 

Last week, Penn State running back C.J. Holmes posted a letter on Twitter from a fan addressed to teammate Jonathan Sutherland asking Sutherland to cut his dreadlocks and clean up his appearance.  

And last year, a referee forced New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson to cut his locks before he could compete in a match. The referee was suspended for two seasons following the incident.

Lawmakers say legislation is needed to end implicit and explicit biases – like hair restrictions – that black women and men face.

“This is not just about hair, it’s about acknowledgement of personal rights, it’s about checking bias,” says California State Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat who wears locks and proposed the state’s law named Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN. “Our hair has always been a source of either pride or embarrassment, a sense of power or a sense of unequalness.”

Hair bias often stems from stereotypes that black hair in its natural state is dirty or unkempt, says Patricia Okonta, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. While there isn’t a consensus among federal courts about whether racial stereotypes violate Title VII, the federal law that prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, sex and religion, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has argued that natural hair and styles should be covered by that statute.

Banning ethnic hairstyles “upholds this notion of white supremacy,” Okonta says. 

The New York City Commission on Human Rights was at the forefront of the current legal movement when it released new guidance in February specifying that penalizing black people for how they wear their hair was as much a form of bias as refusing to hire someone because of their ethnicity or religion.

At the time, the commission was investigating seven complaints of hair bias. When it conducts workshops and training with human resources professionals, industry associations and others, Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis advises them to scrutinize their policies.  

“To the extent people have any dress codes or policies on grooming or professionalism, take a look at them and ask … ‘Are there ways in which these standards and codes affect black people more, affect women more, affect people who are non-binary more?’’’ 

Several high profile incidents of alleged hair discrimination have prompted lawsuits. 

In September, New York City settled with a Sally Hershberger salon accused of several incidents of hair bias. The business settled with the individuals out of court and agreed to pay a $70,000 civil penalty to the city. It also agreed to start training staff members about diversity and styling of black hair. 

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., has taken on several cases including one filed on behalf of two Boston-area sisters, Mya and Deanna Cook, who were forbidden to wear braid extensions to Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in 2017. The policy has since been rescinded. 

It also represented Chastity Jones, an Alabama woman who had a customer service job offer rescinded because she refused to cut her locks. Jones appealed her case up to the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to review it. 

In addition, the organization and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing the Florida Department of Education on behalf of the Stanley family. They are arguing A Book’s Christian Academy’s dreadlocks ban violates nondiscrimination requirements in the Civil Rights Act. The complaint says the school must follow the law because it accepts state scholarship students. 

Okonta, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says the group is lobbying to change TSA screening polices which the organization says disproportionately single out black women for “invasive patdowns” of their natural hair. 

Black women forced to ‘self-edit’ more at work

The growing wave of local and state legislation has forced many non-black managers and executives to recognize hair bias exists. Businesses that offer diversity training to employers, such as Fisher Phillips, a law firm with several offices in California, are updating their guidance to pay attention to hair.

“It’s taken time for white people to recognize that African Americans have to self-edit in a way that is, in addition to and on top of, the ways that all of us have to self-edit to keep our jobs,’’ says Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law and distinguished professor of law at U.C. Hastings.  

“I mean if a white girl shaves off half her (hair) and dyes the other half pink, she may very well have a problem, but nobody will make a peep if she does much of anything else. African American women should have the same amount of freedom.’’ 

The Society for Human Resource Management says HR professionals regularly call its advisory hotline with employee appearance questions, including whether employers are required to allow staffers to wear braids and locks in the workplace.

In its employer toolkit on dress and appearance policies, the organization says while employees can be required to have neatly groomed hair, differences in hair texture must be respected and natural hairstyles such as afros can’t be deemed unacceptable

OneUnited, the largest black-owned bank in the USA, always has accepted whatever hairstyles its employees choose to wear, says Teri Williams, its president and chief operations officer.

“We ask people to bring their authentic selves into our work environment,’’ Williams says. 

But Pam Jeffords, diversity and inclusion practice leader for the consultancy PwC, says some black employees at other companies think braids draw particular scrutiny, and managers say not to wear them.

When a manager tells a black employee to avoid braids it’s “typically … an attempt to give guidance and coaching and not an attempt to be mean,’’ Jeffords says.

Managers, she adds, often explain they give this advice because a braided hairstyle could be an obstacle to promotion. “Regardless, it’s still wrong.”

Such guidance also can inflict psychological harm, says Gillian Scott-Ward, a psychologist in New York who directed the hair and racial identity documentary “Back to Natural.” She says people of color often feel rejected by society when they can’t wear ethnic hairstyles and many black girls are taught at a young age they must straighten their naturally kinky hair to be beautiful. 

“Black people have had to hide what our real natural hair looks like … for so long,” Scott-Ward says. “We are introducing who we really are to the world and I think that’s a shift.”

Women want freedom to be ‘authentically me’ 

Will Jawando, a Montgomery County, Maryland, council member who introduced the county’s natural hair bill, says he was motivated in part by his 5-year-old daughter asking why she couldn’t have long hair like girls she saw on television and at school.

His daughter, who wears her hair natural like her two sisters, thought long hair would make her prettier, Jawando says.

“It really hit me like a ton of bricks,’’ Jawando says. His daughter, because of centuries of “Eurocentric” beauty standards, “still thinks the way her hair naturally grows isn’t as pretty as someone else’s,” he says.

College-age students also are struggling with natural hair acceptance as they move from liberal college campuses to corporate America.

Brittanie Rice, a junior at Spelman College in Atlanta, says she went natural her freshman year. Still, when she goes to internship interviews and networking events, Rice says she wears her hair in a bun rather than in her preferred twists. 

“I know how some companies are, so what I’d rather do is just go ahead and do the slicked back bun or ponytail to get my foot in the door,’’ says Rice, who secured an internship at Boeing for next summer. Afterward, she says, she can be “authentically me.’’

Catherine Williams, a senior at Georgia State University, sometimes wears her natural hair in a curly ponytail for her job at an Atlanta restaurant. Customers, she says, will stare at it. 

I’m not trying to get attention, this is how my hair grows out of my head,” Williams says. “I don’t think there’s anything unpolished about having dreads, or having a fro … as long as you’re taking care of your hair, which most people do.” 

Wisconsin State Rep. LaKeshia Myers, who proposed the state’s law, says protections for natural hair are long overdue. 

“As our country continues to diversify and we become more and more a country of people of color, I think our laws have to reflect that,” Myers says.

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