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black hair is protected by same law that bans race bias, NYC says

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The New York City Commission on Human Rights has issued new guidance. Hairstyles like cornrows and Afros are specifically laid out in the guidelines.
USA TODAY

In what may be a first in the country, New York City is banning policies and practices that penalize black people based on the texture and style of their hair, saying such actions violate their human rights and are against the law.  

The New York City Commission on Human Rights announced Monday that it is issuing guidance stating that the same law that prohibits discrimination based on race, gender or religion also applies to hair–an extension, and intrinsic part, of black identity.

“One of my favorite photographs of President Barack Obama is him in the Oval Office leaning down to allow 5 year old Jacob Philadelphia to touch his hair, and how powerful a message of affirmation that was,’’ said New York City Human Rights Commissioner and Chairwoman  Carmelyn Malalis. “As we were developing the guidance, we had a lot of conversations about the harm that is done to people when they are stigmatized and controlled in regards to who they are and how they move through space. Today being Presidents day buoys our hope that legislators will take notice.” 

The law bans such bias in the workplace, in schools, and in public spaces ranging from restaurants to nightclubs to museums.

While the legal protections apply to any group whose hair styles are associated with their ethnic identity, for those of African descent, hair texture and styles have often been singled out and are a particular target for abuse.

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In December there was outrage after a 16-year-old athlete named Andrew Johnson was forced by a referee to cut his locks before he could proceed with his wrestling match. And just five years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense implemented a ban on afros, braids and twists. It later reversed the policy amid the backlash.

Brittany Noble-Jones said she faced hair discrimination when she was fired from her job as an anchor with WJTV in Jackson, Mississippi, last year. She alleged that wearing braids on air triggered internal performance reviews and ultimately her termination.

Noble-Jones, who’s now based in New York , called the city commission’s announcement “huge.”

“The fact we have been worried about this all these years is one thing, but I’m very excited we can move forward and rock our hair and wear it the way God intended us to wear it,” she said.

WJTV and its parent company, Nexstar responded in a statement that they “maintain a strict zero-tolerance policy which prohibits harassment, discrimination or retaliation of any type. Allegations that Ms. Jones’ employment was terminated for her choice of hairstyles have no basis in fact and are vigorously denied.”

The New York City Commission says that it is looking into seven cases in which black workers have been targeted based on their hair, from being threatened with termination if they did not stop wearing locs which the employer deemed “unclean,” to being made to pull back their braids even as their co-workers were allowed to wear their hair down.

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Such complaints, along with a litany of incidents around the country in which black workers and school children have been harassed because of their hair prompted the commission to clarify that the city’s law against discrimination also applies in those instances.

Noliwe Rooks, professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, said that the local commission’s move is significant.

“This is big,” she said of the commission’s new guidelines. “Hair is connected to civil rights… and needs to be protected.”

Black hair has had a symbolic potency in the U.S. since the 1800’s, and has been a stand in for a particular kind of black identity that doesn’t want to assimilate.

“It’s at the moment of when you had large numbers of African-Americans leaving enslavement and the Great Migration, so there was more contact between communities on more equal footing,” she said. The narrative is ‘You just don’t look civilized. You just don’t look professional.’”

Later, natural hair became a powerful symbol of pride and militancy during the Black Power movement that emerged in the 1960’s.

“It’s less about fitting in,” Rooks said, “I’m proud how hair grows out of my head.”

Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones

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A 20-year-old landed a job at the Cedar Point theme park in Sandusky, Ohio, until suddenly, the park fired him because of his dreadlocks.
Video provided by Newsy
Newslook

 

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