The way you keep your hair is an important and expressive aspect of your identity. It’s part of the way you present yourself to the people around you. For people whose hair meets what we typically think of as societal norms and expectations, it’s not something they might have to think about often. For people of color, however, failing to meet these supposed norms can result in discrimination and bias being directed toward them, especially in the workplace.
Legislation barring this discrimination has moved fast in the last few weeks: California, with the CROWN act, and New York both just banned it within the span of two weeks, and New Jersey has legislation on the table proposing to do so.
Discrimination based on hairstyle or hair texture overwhelmingly and disproportionately affects black Americans. A recent case of a high school wrestler in New Jersey not only exemplifies this discrimination against people of color but also is inspiring New Jersey legislators to amend state law to stop it from happening.
Andrew Johnson was told he either had to cut off his dreadlocks to participate in his wrestling match or forfeit it entirely. The bill that was put forward in New Jersey in June would outlaw hair discrimination not only in schools but also in housing and in the workplace.
The New Jersey bill would ban “discrimination based on hair type, texture or style, and include such natural styles as locks, braids, twists, and Afros,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Statistics show that Johnson is far from the only person who has had to change their hair appearance to conform to norms in society. Black women are “80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work,” according to a study conducted by Dove. Furthermore, the survey showed that “black women are 50% more likely to be sent home from their jobs or know of a black woman who was sent home over their hair,” Black Enterprise reports.
As the previous statistics show, black women face this discrimination more than most. The research consortium Perception Institute conducted the Good Hair Study, which pointed toward the root of this discrimination toward people of color, and especially women of color. The study, comprised of over 4,000 participants, showed that “[most] people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias toward women of color based on their hair,” Black Enterprise reports. White women exhibit this bias the most, while millennials were decidedly more open-minded and exhibited more positive attitudes toward natural hair.
New York City put in protections against hair discrimination just this past February, months before the state did. Under the law, all people are afforded the right to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities. Black people are specifically protected, as well: the law shields their “right to maintain natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”
Hair prejudice, clearly, is closely linked with racial discrimination. Prejudice toward people of color can manifest in many different ways, and this is just one of them. They are expected to change themselves to fit into societal norms that white people have created, but these new laws may be able to combat this discrimination.
This form of discrimination can be seen at the highest levels of a company. In 2013, a BP executive, Melphine Evans, was fired for “braiding her hair and wearing dashikis,” an African garment, because doing so allegedly made her colleagues “uncomfortable,” according to Court House News. Supervisors referred to her dress and hair as “ethnic” and told her she was the problem. Evans sued BP. Under the laws enacted in New York and California, and the one put forth in New Jersey, this firing would be illegal.
More recently in 2018, a woman of color in Alabama refused to cut her dreadlocks and thus lost an offer for a job. She was told by the human resources department of the company Catastrophe Management Systems that dreadlocks tend to get “messy” and thus are against company policy. While the company alleges that the “grooming policy” was not linked to race, the laws enacted in NY and California clearly demonstrate the link between the hairstyle of dreadlocks and race. The Alabama woman, Chastity Jones, is alleging that the rescinding of the job offer was an act of racism. She wished to have her case heard by the Supreme Court, but they declined to do so.