On February 18th, 2019, The New York Times reported that New York had become the first US state to ban discrimination based on hair. The guidelines of this law are based on the argument that hair is inherent to one’s race and that certain hairstyles are a part of a person’s cultural identity. As a result, certain styles are now protected under the city’s human rights laws, which outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and other protected classes.
Though this law protects all citizens of New York, it benefits African Americans the most. There’s a pervasive idea that natural (as in untreated by chemicals) afro-textured hair is “extreme” or “unprofessional.” But it also extends to protective hairstyles like locs, cornrows, twists, braids, and Bantu knots which are often called “unruly” or “unclean.” Anyone in violation of this new law could be charged up to $250,000 in fines.
A step in the right direction, the ban was a long time coming. In the past decade alone there have been case after case of black Americans being subjected to this kind of discrimination in all aspects of life.
One similar instance occurred last year in December when Andrew Johnson, a Buena Regional High School wrestler, was forced to have his dreads cut otherwise he would have to forfeit his match. Opting to compete, Johnson had his dreads cut in front of everyone minutes before he was supposed to go onto the mat. (It’s worth noting that Alan Maloney, the referee who made the call, has a history of using racial slurs.) According to Johnson’s parents, their son’s hair hadn’t been a problem before, further raising eyebrows at Maloney’s call. Thankfully, Johnson triumphed and gained support from many, including Jordan Burroughs, a former Olympic wrestler.
Other stories, however, have not proved to be as triumphant as Johnson’s. Destiny Thompkins, a former Banana Republic employee, was told by the store manager, Michael Gennish, that she needed to remove her box braids or else she wouldn’t be scheduled for shifts. Her braids were described as “too messy” and “unkempt.” She posted about the incident and it went viral resulting in Gennish’s termination. Thompkins filed a $1 million lawsuit against Banana Republic’s parent company GAP, Inc. but her case was ultimately dismissed on February 6th, 2018.
Cosmopolitan’s Tatiana Walk-Morris details her and other women’s humiliating experiences with the TSA. As Morris exited the security scanners, a TSA agent told her they needed to pat down her hair which was straightened at the time and pulled into a low ponytail. Walk-Morris, an African-American, wore the same hairstyle as other white women at the airport, but only she was stopped and searched for this reason. The year of her search was 2017 but TSA had promised to stop singling out black women back in 2015.
On the West Coast, Los Angeles Senator Holly J. Mitchell recently introduced the SB-188 bill that will also ban hair discrimination in California, and at the time of this writing the bill is headed for the House. It’s the next step to, hopefully, adopt these bans in every US state. There’s no concrete way to tell when equity will be achieved in this country, but in the meantime change will keep happening thanks to those insistent enough to tell their stories.
In the words of Noliwe Rooks, professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, “Hair is connected to civil rights.” And, like all civil rights, it needs to be protected.
Johanie Martinez-Cools is a blogger, writer, book editor, and aspiring author.