The famous song “Don’t Touch My Hair” by Solange has a new legal meaning to people in New York City.
The New York City Commission on Human Rights — it is entrusted with enforcing the human rights law and educating people about it — released legal enforcement guidance on race discrimination involving hair this past week.
According to www1.nyc.gov, the legal enforcement guidance declares that the appearance and grooming policies that ban natural hair or hairstyles —and disproportionately impact black New Yorkers — are unlawful, discriminatory treatment under the NYC Human Rights Law.
This includes but is not limited to the right to maintain natural hair and or hairstyles such as twits, braids, locs, Bantu knots, and uncut or untrimmed hair.
Once the guidelines are exercised, people who have been tormented, victimized, fired, or demoted due to their natural hair and or hairstyle could receive an equitable reimbursement.
Fines up to $250,000 can be imposed on organizations that are found to be discriminatory. Also, the commission can implement internal procedural changes at businesses and organizations that are in violation of the guidelines.
According to the NYC Commission, bans or limitations on natural hair or hairstyles primarily identified with black people are often based on white standards of appearance and they reinforce racist stereotypes that black hairstyles are deemed unprofessional. Those types of policies heighten anti-black bias in employment and other aspects of daily life.
“When my mom use to go interview for jobs — I could tell — she used to flat-iron her hair and make it straight, even though her hair obviously isn’t like that. I wonder why that is the case,” said Jaylen Washington a sophomore computer engineering major at Florida A&M University. “There is always like this undertone like ‘you’re not kept up,’ and I think that is pretty messed up.”
Another student, Sierra Johnson, a food science major who has natural hair, aspires to be in the healthcare field doing research on chronic diseases and on food. She is not sure how people will perceive her hair while doing presentations— because she believes that area of healthcare is predominantly white.
“In situations where I have to do presentations and possibly be on TV and in front of large crowds I might have to adapt to the audience that I have,” said Johnson. “And I feel like the field that I want to go into is very white dominated, so I’ll … have to step into that role of being a representative for the entire black woman community —how I style my hair is definitely going to affect how I’m perceived.”
Although these hair discrimination guidelines only pertain to New York City, the sentiment can inspire other cities and states to follow suit.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction, I think we need more legislation punishing people for discriminating against one's beliefs or culture or values,” said Jakaila Scaife, a senior history major. “I think the more culture we can bring to the table, the better, and the more diverse we can make our society, the better.”