Tuesday Talk*: Hair, The New Frontier For Discrimination

What difference does hair make? A lot if you’re black. Part of it is nature and genetics, and part of it is style. And it could now mean a very expensive haircut if your employees are black and your business is in New York City.

Hair, like any other aspect of one’s personal attire and grooming, speaks to who you are, and so many people choose their hairstyle to express their individuality. What does an employer care? Well, for some, it speaks to professionalism, much as wearing a suit rather than jeans conveys a message to customers or clients. But hair?

Anti-Black racism is an invidious and persistent form of discrimination across the nation and in New York City. Anti-Black racism can be explicit and implicit, individual and structural, and it can manifest through entrenched stereotypes and biases, conscious and unconscious. Anti-Black bias also includes discrimination based on characteristics and cultural practices associated with being Black, including prohibitions on natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with Black people. Bans or restrictions on natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people are often rooted in white standards of appearance and perpetuate racist stereotypes that Black hairstyles are unprofessional.

And therein the problem arises. This isn’t about hair, but black hair. This isn’t some tacit understanding, but about as flagrant as it comes. An employer cannot discriminate on the basis of hair choices by black employees.

The guidelines, obtained by The New York Times before their public release, are believed to be the first of their kind in the country. They are based on the argument that hair is inherent to one’s race (and can be closely associated with “racial, ethnic, or cultural identities”) and is therefore protected under the city’s human rights laws, which outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion and other protected classes.

In some respects, hair is a product of genetics. But what one does beyond that is a matter of personal choice, and what could be wrong about choosing hairstyles that are traditionally associated with “racial, ethnic, or cultural identities”? You don’t like the way Bantu knots look? Maybe she doesn’t like your pompadour. So what?

To date, there is no legal precedent in federal court for the protection of hair. Indeed, last spring the United States Supreme Court refused an NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund request to review a case in which a black woman, Chastity Jones, had her job offer rescinded in 2010 at an Alabama insurance company after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks.

Years ago, there was an Irish guy who sold weed in the south Bronx along with some of his pals, who were black and Dominican, who wore dreadlocks. His nickname was the “Fakin’ Jamaican,” and we all used to laugh about it. Of course, cultural appropriation had yet to be a thing back then, so nobody punched him for it.

What makes this law stand out isn’t that it protects bias against traditionally black hairstyles, but that it removes hair from an employer’s prerogative about the appearance of staff, and consequently the impression the business gives to its customers.

“There’s nothing keeping us from calling out these policies prohibiting natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with black people,” said Carmelyn P. Malalis, the commissioner and chairwoman of the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

“They are based on racist standards of appearance,” Ms. Malalis continued, saying that they perpetuate “racist stereotypes that say black hairstyles are unprofessional or improper.”

In many instances, that seems fairly obvious. In others, less so. It’s not hard to imagine jobs where hair matters, such as food service, or where it doesn’t, such as most jobs. And in the scheme of an employer preferring to convey his version of “professionalism” to his customers, why shoud dreads be wrong? Sure, some customers might be put off, but catering to the whims of the prejudiced isn’t a justification for being prejudiced. And then again, other customers might not only find it perfectly fine, but might prefer to do business with a person in dreadlocks.

But the breadth of this law is, well, breathtaking. An employer can dictate that hair be kept neat and trimmed for some employees but not others based explicitly on race. And if hair choices are based on “racist standards of apperarance,” aren’t clothing as well? In fact, isn’t the entire concern of an employer as to the appearance of staff a matter of prejudice, the employer’s bias about good and bad appearance? Is hair discrimination the next logical step, or is it a step too far?

*Yes, it’s Wednesday. Get over it. Tuesday Talk rules apply.

24 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Hair, The New Frontier For Discrimination

  1. Xchixm

    As a guy with long hair with probably 20 natural curls per inch of hair, making it a nightmare if kept uncontrolled, I think this new guideline is whack.

    1. SHG Post author

      It was a lot of work when I had long hair to keep it from getting all knotty. Short hair is a lot easier, and easier is far more important to me these days than appearance.

  2. Richard Kopf


    Hair, the musical, has now been enshrined in law. In this age of the dawning of Aquarius, let the sunshine in and let your payot hang low!

    All the best.


  3. Noxx

    I have the Horseshack Afro myself if I let it grow out, which I don’t. All this posturing is neat until you’re the guy (or gal) working next a lathe, belt fed anything, screw drive anything, etc.

      1. L. Phillips

        If you fail to close the access panel a CNC lathe becomes an ethnically and/or sexually non-selective meat grinder.

  4. B. McLeod

    Your city leaders will not be happy until NYC is a desert with no businesses. then they can throw a celebration over the defeat of evil capitalism.

    1. Anthony Kehoe

      They don’t need businesses.. They’ll just jack the taxes for the rich up to 150% and then give everyone $10 UBI. Win/win.

    2. Jardinero1

      This is the beauty of federalism. New York can engage in this great experiment and, if it is worthy of emulation, other states may follow. By extension, human beings who feel this is folly, may move to other states which are less prone to such follies.

  5. Guitardave

    So does this mean the follicle-ly challenged gets a federally funded hair club? ….Otherwise, how do i express myself…..ITS NOT FAIR!!!!
    (repeat ad nasuem)
    PS: Send me a reparation check and I’ll shut up….(and buy me some nice pretty rock-star hair)

      1. LocoYokel

        Do I hear the beginnings of the MRA answer to the demand for women’s free birth control and hygiene products, free treatment and hair implants for MPB (male pattern baldness)?

  6. Noe Kidden

    I noted the New York City Commission on Human Rights “legal guidance” capitalized the word Black where used to described a class of people, whereas the word white where used to describe a class of people was not. Explicit or implicit bias?

  7. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I wear dreadlocks, mostly because it acts as a filter. People that I don’t want to talk to are less likely to bother me. Also companies that I don’t want to work for are less likely to hire me. Why would I want to work for a company that doesn’t like dreadlocks? Maybe if I was a professional victim.

    Laws against discrimination don’t work. If someone doesn’t like your appearance, they won’t hire you. If not liking your appearance is illegal, then they won’t hire you, for another reason. A law will only change the answer, from “Sorry I don’t like your dreadlocks” to “Sorry other applicants were more qualified.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Under the right circumstances, laws against discrimination can work pretty well, at least as far as obtaining compensation for discrimination. But I fear laws like this will backfire, much like “ban the box” laws. It will end up being another red flag for a problem down the line. Even if it’s not enough to preclude someone from being hired, it’s a strike against them.

  8. Nemo

    It’s an obvious cliche’, so I might as well say it. All hairstyles are created equal, but some hairstyles are more equal than others. Make of that what you will, but some dreadlocks are protected, while the rest are not. This is apparently considered to be advancing the cause of liberty. I don’t understand how it actually advances liberty, but I’m just a groundling.



    1. SHG Post author

      There may be times when hair style matters and times when it doesn’t matter at all. But now, it’s about liability rather than style, which makes it matter a lot more than it did before.

  9. ShootingHipster

    I showed up to a gas plant for a small contract sporting a year and a half long beard and had to shave it off in the parking lot. I know they don’t care if I suck back some H2S and kick the bucket, but it’s bad for business when someone dies on your jobsite. Need a clean shave for that SCBA to get a good seal on the face. Same goes for big hair. If you can’t put a lid on it, cut it off. I’m an advocate of always wearing your helmet at work, especially for you folks who work in an office. In the name of workplace safety shave that shit off your head and put a helmet on.

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