Black Hair Triumphs in NYC Hair Discrimination Ban

*The Breakdown is The North Star's daily analysis of an essential news story designed to provide historical context, go beyond the popular headlines, and offer a glimpse of where this story may be going next.

Key Facts: Hair is one of the most personal and sensitive parts of a person’s identity. For African Americans, hair is a conduit for identity and cultural representation. Black women wear a range of hairstyles including corn rows, locs, braids, fades, Bantu knots, or a natural. All of these styles perform specific cultural work or symbolize one’s feelings about Black culture and identity in a wide variety of political and cultural moments. Not unlike other parts of the Black body, hair is often seen as transgressive and a challenge to the status quo. It has been policed, monitored, and forced to conform or suffer the full penalty of punishment from the state. New York City’s ban on hair discrimination is a hopeful step forward.

Historical Facts: These confrontations with the state have risen to epic proportions. Black women are accosted in public places by folks who want to touch their hair with or without permission. Young children with locs or braids have been barred from classrooms, or asked to leave and alter their hairstyles. Employees are fired for choosing to wear the hairstyle of their choice. These occurrences are not only violations of one’s First Amendment rights, but are also deeply insensitive to cultural difference and oblivious to the multiracial and multiethnic currents of our society. It also demonstrates that normative styles are associated with a European standard, which is out of step with the multiracial and multiethnic spaces we currently inhabit. The NYC Commission on Human Rights has issued guidance to employers and public places that it is illegal to prevent people with these hairstyles from entering businesses that service the public. Forcing employees to modify their hair is also illegal. Those who violate the policy can face fines up to $250,000. The ban affirms the scope of the problem and represents a constructive step to address it.

Beneath the Surface: Affirming one’s culture and identity is an essential part of assuring dignity while creating a higher level of appreciation and respect for all people. The constant agitation and refusal of Black victims to accept the policing of their hair served as a catalyst for this ban; it is as much a legal pronouncement as it is a statement of the refusal of countless Black people to conform to unjust practices. Next Steps: Black people who are tired of the random and systemic abuse that hairstyles generate now have a tangible ally. Hopefully, Black people can be afforded the dignity of self-expression and respect that this ban allows. The guidance provided by the Commission can usher in a tidal wave of bans on hair discrimination across the country. We are looking forward to the day when Black hair rules as an unquestioned expression of Black personhood throughout the nation.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.