Hair discrimination is when schools force children to change their hair or leave, and when companies fire women because of their style choices. The New York City Commission on Human Rights issued a legal guidance on racial hair discrimination this February in response to the prevalent, yet unspoken discriminatory policies employed across the United States.
In a document entitled Legal Enforcement Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair, New York City has outlawed hair discrimination in schools, the workplace and public spaces. Although the law does apply to people of every race, it gives due attention to the black community, which bears the brunt of hair discrimination, going as far back as the 1800s.
Under Spanish rule, Louisiana witnessed the Tignon Laws that made it illegal for black women to show their hair, which was considered too ornate or too beautiful. As the economy thrived, so did the black community, with black women becoming known for their beautifully elaborate hairstyles, often featuring jewels and feathers to showcase what Jameelah Nasheed eloquently calls “the magic and glory of their gravity-defying strands,” which denoted wealth and attracted the zealous attention of white men.
The Tignon Laws were intended to control the rising status of these women, who, according to historian Virginia M. Gould, began rivaling white women: “[They] had become too light skinned … dressed too elegantly, or … competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.”
Even when women were forced to a wear a headdress called a tignon, they wore them just as elaborately, with extravagant fabrics and jewels, turning the tignon into a fashion commodity and symbol. Although the laws vanished once the U.S. acquired Louisiana in 1803, black hair discrimination has continued up to the present day.
NYC’s new law addresses the delusion that black hair is unprofessional or “other,” which is the root of the problem and permeates more than New York City. “There is a widespread and fundamentally racist belief that Black hairstyles are not suited for formal settings,” the document reads, “and may be unhygienic, messy, disruptive, or unkempt.”
The Horizon Science Academy in Ohio attempted to ban afros and twisted braids as part of their new dress code in 2013. In the wake of a serious backlash for their decision, the school immediately issued an apology and dropped the new rule, while stating their decision was taken out of context.
“It had nothing to do with young ladies, young African-American ladies,” the school’s advisory board member James Knight told the Huffington Post. “It was really more so addressing young African-American men here at this school. We want to maintain a certain type of college prep culture here, and we just want the young men to be well-groomed.”
The issue, however, isn’t with the young men, but the dogmatic, racist belief that black hair is naturally less appealing and doesn’t meet formal or “prep-culture” standards.
“It’s an issue black people face within the black community and outside,” said Leila Noelliste, founder and editor of the Black Girl with Long Hair website, “that our naturally occurring features are characterized as unruly, undisciplined, unkempt.”
There have been countless hair discrimination occurrences in the workforce. In Maryland, Farryn Johnson was fired from waitressing at Hooters in 2013 because of her blonde hair lights. She told CBS, “They specifically said, ‘Black women don’t have blonde in their hair, so you need to take it out.’”
That same year, 24-year-old Ashley Davis was working as a secretary for the company Tower Loan in Missouri for two months before her manager told her to cut her dreadlocks, the same dreadlocks she wore when she was hired. The company created the new policy, which prohibited dreadlocks, braids, mohawks, mullets among other hairstyles, within weeks of Davis’ job, which Davis refused to comply with. “I feel like it’s degrading,” she told Fox2Now.
In 2018, Aireial Mack landed a sales position at a LA Fitness health club in New Orleans before being fired four months in because of her natural hair, her supervisor saying it didn’t meet LA fitness standards.
The New York City Human Rights Law has taken a monumental step to keep such discrimination from occurring on their soil by specifying that all New Yorkers have the right to wear whatever hairstyle they choose, saying the law “… protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.
” … For black people, this includes 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.”
In Florida, 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke at the Faith Christian Academy was dealt an ultimatum after the school updated their dress code: cut her natural hair within a week or leave.
VanDyke’s mother, Sabrina Kent, told the Huffington Post that her daughter’s hair only became an issue for the school when she told them her daughter’s hair was being ridiculed: “ … it seems to me that they’re blaming her,” said her mother. According to Kent, the school claimed her daughter’s hair was a “distraction” — a common excuse many schools use to conform or ostracize students.
It’s the same excuse sisters Mya and Deanna Cook were given at Massachusetts’ Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in 2017 when they started wearing hair extensions. They were barred from attending prom, extracurricular activities and threatened with suspension if they didn’t comply with the school’s policy, which banned hair extensions.
Although the Cook family had proof that white female students wore hair extensions and never faced any repercussions, they said the administration told them those hair modifications weren’t as obvious or distracting as their daughters’.
The NYC Commission on Human Rights provides several examples of discriminatory policies, one of which includes this distraction ploy: “A charter school informs a Black student that she must change her Afro because it is a ‘distraction’ in the classroom,” the commission wrote, stipulating that “ … it is no justification to prohibit natural hair or hairstyles because they are perceived to be a distraction or because of speculative health or safety concerns.”
In 2018, a video surfaced of 11-year-old Faith Fennidy leaving her class in tears after being told her extensions, which were braided and set in a ponytail, violated her school’s dress code, which only permitted “natural hair.”
A woman can be heard saying, “I don’t want this to happen,” but the Fennidy family disagrees. The Archdiocese of New Orleans, where Fennidy attended, told BBC that they “ … offered the student’s family an opportunity to comply with the uniform and dress policy and the family chose to withdraw the student; the student was not suspended or expelled.”
One of the biggest issues surrounding hair discrimination is a lack of understanding that hair maintenance differs depending on hair texture, which is something Faith Fennidy’s brother pointed out. “Extensions make the hair easier to maintain,” he said. “It allows my sister to have access to the swimming pool without having to get her hair redone every night.”
Many popular hairstyles used in the black community fall under the umbrella of protective hair styles, such as braids, weaves, twists and buns, which are meant to decrease tangling, shedding and breakage. By keeping the hair up and ends tucked, even some of the time, the hair can retain natural oils, which soften the hair by preventing exposure to dry air and snagging on fabric, such as clothing or even a couch. This prevents the hair from drying out and breaking, and in turn allows the hair to grow.
A golden rule of hair maintenance is that the less it’s touched the better. Those 100 brush strokes meant to make straight hair shine won’t make the cut for kinky or curly hair, according to hair enthusiast Del Sandeen. “Instead, black hair tends to grow longer when left alone,” said Sandeen. “Protective styles offer the low-maintenance that so often benefits this hair type, especially if longer length is one of your aims.” One of the reasons extensions are popular is because of how low-maintenance it is, and lower maintenance equals healthier hair.
New York City has started a necessary conversation and movement that every state across the U.S. needs to emulate if they want to start recognizing the level of discrimination the black community faces. Unjustified and discriminatory policies must be eradicated in schools and the workplace.