In December, a New Jersey high school student made headlines after being forced to cut his dreadlocks off before a wresting match. Although it wasn't the first time someone was wrongfully discriminated against for their hair, the incident drew national attention to a widespread problem. Just this week, the New York City Commission on Human Rights recognized this growing problem with new guidance that classifies such restrictions in workplaces, schools and public places as racial discrimination.
Under the new guidelines, appearance and grooming policies that ban natural hairstyles, including locks, cornrows, braids, twists, Bantu knots, fades, and Afros, in public are illegal and punishable by law. In large part intended to combat racist stereotypes that black hairstyles are “unprofessional," employers are banned from dictating how workers wear their hair, meaning that those who’ve encountered harassment can take legal action, and organizations found to have violated the new guidelines can face penalties of up to $250,000. As first reported by The New York Times, the measure was catalyzed by investigations of employee complaints of discrimination at several businesses across Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx.
“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 commissioner and chairwoman of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, told the New York Times. “They are based on racist standards of appearance,” and “racist stereotypes that say black hairstyles are unprofessional or improper.”
Social advocates are hopeful that New York City's progressive decisions will set the tone for other cities and states around the country.