The New York City Commission on Human Rights has released Guidance stating that the city’s human rights law “protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.” Although the guidance applies to all races, ethnicities, and cultures, its focus is on protecting the right of people of African descent “to maintain 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.” Using the hashtag “#YourHairYourRightNYC,” the Commission’s Chair explained the guidance in more simple terms with this tweet: “Hair is part of you. Race discrimination based on hair is illegal in NYC.”
The guidance covers public accommodations and employers.
Public accommodations (that is, schools, businesses, and other public spaces) cannot discriminate against an individual based on a hairstyle that is associated with the individual’s race, ethnicity, or culture. Examples of discrimination include the following:
- A private school has a policy prohibiting locs or braids.
- A public school athletic association prohibits a African-American student athlete with locs from participating in an athletic competition because his hair is below his shoulders but allows white student athletes with long hair to tie their hair up.
- A charter school informs a student that she must change her Afro because it is a “distraction” in the classroom.
- A children’s dance company requires girls to remove their braids, alter their Afros, and wear only “smooth buns” to participate in classes.
- A nightclub tells a patron she is not welcome because her natural hairstyle does not meet the dress code.
Employers are prohibited from enacting discriminatory grooming policies. Examples of prohibited polices include the following:
- A grooming policy prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades, which are commonly associated with people of African descent.
- A grooming policy requiring employees to alter the state of their hair to conform to the company’s appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax hair (for example, by using chemicals or heat).
- A grooming policy banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp, thereby limiting Afros.
- A grooming policy banning the use of color, dye, extensions, or pattered or shaved hairstyles for African-descent employees only.
Although an employer may have grooming policies related to health and safety, those policies must be neutral and may not target hairstyles that are associated with people of African descent or other protected classes.
Employers are also prohibited from discriminating against employees based on aspects of their appearance that are associated with their race, ethnicity, or culture. Examples of such discrimination include the following:
- Forcing people of African descent to obtain supervisory approval before changing hairstyles but not imposing the same requirement on other people.
- Requiring only employees of African descent to alter or cut their hair or risk losing their jobs.
- Requiring an employee of African descent who has locs to change his or her hairstyle to be in a customer-facing role.
- Refusing to hire an applicant of African descent with cornrows because her hairstyle does not fit the “image” the employer is trying to project for sales representatives.
- Mandating that employees of African descent hide their hair or hairstyles with a hat or visor.
- Restricting hair associated with people of African descent to promote a certain corporate image.
Although the Commission’s guidance has not been enacted into law by the New York City Council or endorsed by New York courts, we recommend that companies with employees or operations in the Big Apple review and, if necessary, revise their appearance and grooming policies to comply with the guidance. Unlike its federal counterpart, the Commission has adjudicatory authority, which means it can assess fines, award damages, and grant injunctive relief such as requiring an employer to change its policies or reinstate a terminated employee. The Commission is currently investigating seven complaints of hairstyle discrimination, and more complaints are likely to come.