New York and Hair Discrimination


| It’s 2019, and every time I leave my house for a business meeting what I’m most concerned about is my hair.

New York City just passed a law banning discrimination of a person based on their hair. Can you believe it? I ask this question in disbelief for a multitude of reasons: how could it have taken this long? Why is this even still necessary? Do people understand the weight of this legislation? The law is aimed to provide legal recourse to anyone who has targeted people in public spaces such as schools and work because of their hair, most applicably of which will be of the black minority. The bill reads in part that New Yorkers now have the right to keep “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 a press release, the New York City commission for Human Rights explained the need for the new legislation say:

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. Such policies exacerbate anti-Black bias in employment, at school, while playing sports, and in other areas of daily living.
— - New York City Commission for Human Rights

That’s great! I’m happy to see that the awareness and action is there. But will it really be enough?

My personal choice to typically stick to sew-ins and the occasional silk press to give my hair a break from the braids, was really bred out of ease and versatility. What’s convenient about my preference is that it also happens to coincide with the ideal standard of what corporate black hair should look like. And even in the “playing it safe“ realm of the sew-in, I still routinely get the most compliments and even social media engagement when that sew-in happens to be shorter and straighter and darker. My go-to interview style is an 8-10-12 Peruvian straight sew in, with a long bang and side part.

While working in the lab earlier in my career where I saw the same people every day and was not in a client facing roll, after my interview I experimented quite a bit more. Speaking with other black women in the workplace, this seems to be a common cadence. The thought process goes something like this: Just appease them in your appearance to get through the interview, then we can get back to normal. But I will never forget the Monday I came into work after a fresh install of waist-length box braids. My boss’ boss at the time walks around the corner and saw me. I greeted him as always, “Good Morning!“ And his response was very distinct and unforgettable. With a rather annoyed and somewhat disgusted look he said “oh, is that the look we’re going for now?“ I was furious and promptly turned on me heels, called him a word I have repented to my Savior for saying, and went about my day. There was a slight bit of redemption when later that week I was called into a client meeting as a subject matter expert, and the client herself was wearing Bantu knots. The small gratification I felt when he saw her hair made me want to flip that conference room table and yell “NOW WHAT!?” Keep in mind, this is also the same man who was looking to move houses so his young son would not have to grow up next to a child with special needs…

But I digress…

It’s a common problem within the black community, a common question we ask ourselves when we get that call or email requesting an interview. We’re excited, we’re happy...planning outfits and studying our prep questions. But for me even larger, I’m asking myself: “How should I wear my hair?” Even to this day working in a field in which I’m faced with the very white, very middle-aged, very male majority, I am constantly aware of how I present myself, specifically and notably beginning from the top of my head. In 2019, I still would not wear twists or knots (even if it was my preference) into a room of decision makers, let alone to an interview. It’s shameful and disturbing that something so common place as hair can make the difference in getting a job, landing that deal or being taken seriously. 

This legislation is a step in the right direction, if for no other reason than to bring awareness. If it makes anyone stop and think twice, recognize biases they may have against another hair texture, it has done it’s job. My hope, however, is that no matter how anyone may choose to change or where what grows out of their head, it would make no difference in how they are perceived; that the perceptions of success in the workplace have absolutely nothing to do with the hair on top of their head. 

With all that said, going too far in the other direction is also not helpful. Changes in hairstyle, texture or color should not garner any kind of comment and does not require attention. No matter your race, if you’re on board with the hairstyle and you just cannot help yourself with a comment, a nice “love the new do“ is just fine. And if you don’t, that’s fine too but still bring the same kind of support. Because we’re all tired of the same Rachel haircut you’ve been wearing since 1998 but still give you those fake smiles and thumbs up when you walk into the office with the latest retouch. Black hair is not a spectacle and it’s not a white guilt platform to be rubber stamped in support. 

Ok, ok. I’m stepping down off this very tall rambling soapbox and we can get back to some regularly scheduled programming. But this is a topic that goes largely ignored in the corporate space, and I’m grateful that the awareness is becoming greater on a national scale.

What are your thoughts on the subject? I’d certainly be interested to know so leave me a comment below and we can start a conversation. 

Love Loudly. Live Loudly.