When the recent ruling from the New York City Commission on Human Rights came down last week, decreeing that workplace discrimination against black hair was unlawful and punishable up to a $250,000 fine, I was reminded of the deep significance my hair yields within America. For much of my career as a style and culture journalist, I have written tirelessly on the subject of black natural hair and its exclusion from the wider fashion and beauty conversation. This absence was no coincidence, but the result of Eurocentric beauty standards having historically excluded black people from the canon of beauty. Take the Tignon Laws of pre-Civil War Louisiana, which demanded that free women of African descent cover their hair in public. Their eye-catching and elaborate hairstyles, which included adorning their locks with feathers and jewelry, was attracting the attention of white men and blurred the lines of social strata. By covering their hair, the slave status of these women was reinforced and their beauty concealed. These laws set the precedent for a harrowing and insidious legacy of undermining black beauty and shaming black hair – one we see play out in the news with far too much frequency today.
Last year, a black Alabama woman, Chastity Jones, found her job offer at a customer service call center was rescinded when she refused to cut her dreadlocs. Jones would later take her case to the Supreme Court. This while a young black girl in Gretna, Louisiana, was suspended from school for the benign act of installing box braids in her hair last year – her struggle echoing the very penalty South African female students at Pretoria High School faced when in 2016 their school instructed all students must straighten their hair. The student body rallied against the aggressive and demeaning laws that felt reminiscent of apartheid, and they caught the world’s attention.
These are but just a few of the episodes of consistent backlash that black people and our hair face in the workplace and beyond. Hair, as we know, is in no way a litmus test on how well a person can do at a job, but instead feels like a moving target that prohibits black people from moving freely and succeeding within the workforce. Once getting over the huge obstacles of employment discrimination that have kept black people out of positions of power or in the C-Suite, it would seem that another one is built to make us feel uncomfortable in our own skin once we arrive at the office. But moreover, it polices our bodies and attempts to instill deep stigmas around our appearance.
It cannot go without saying that the Black Is Beautiful movement of the ’70s and the natural hair movement of today ushered in an incredible pride in our natural curl pattern. Artists like Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, to Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis have been lodestars for black beauty in the public eye and on the red carpet; these women were and are never afraid to show the versatility and beauty of our kinks. But it is laws like these passed by the New York City Commission that ensure that everyday black folks outside of the public eye can express ourselves in any way we so choose. That seems like such a small right, but in truth, it guarantees that our whole selves can show up to do the job.
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