African American hair (CC: Google Images)
Very little could have deterred me from going natural when I decided to stop relaxing my hair in college. Going without a touch-up for months wasn’t cute, but searching for an affordable stylist in my college town was demoralizing. Plus, I had never really loved the way I looked with straight hair until I wore it very short (a cut I soon learned is best maintained by people who don’t worry about overspending on their campus meal plan).
I nearly skipped out of my hairdresser’s shop after she finished buzzing my hair low to the scalp — but my grandfather wasn’t so enthused when he saw the look. He stared for a full 10 seconds before gently (and very tactfully, for him) stating his concern that wearing a fro might make getting a job harder after graduation. I didn’t change a thing even though a small part of me considered he might be right.
Nearly everyone has worried if their appearance would be deemed “presentable” at school or at work. Weight discrimination is overwhelmingly permissible in the United States, and people who wear visible religious garments or hairstyle, like those of Sikh faith, may lose out on job opportunities, even though religious discrimination is illegal. Now, a new set of guidelines from the New York City Human Rights Commission aims to prevent the hair-based discrimination that disproportionately impacts Black New Yorkers.
As the New York Times reports, the edict gives “legal recourse to individuals who have been harassed, threatened, punished, demoted, or fired because of the texture or style of their hair.” Penalties can be issued up to $250,000 and the commission has the power to intervene directly, and institute “internal policy changes and rehirings at offending institutions.”
“Bias against the curly textured hair of people of African descent is as old as this country and a form of race-based discrimination,” First Lady of NYC Chirlane McCray said in a statement. “There are too many places, from schools to workplaces and beyond, where the idea that the hair that grows on the heads of people of African descent is, in its natural state, not acceptable.”
If that seems hyperbolic, just take a look at the news — or talk to your friends. In 2016, students at South Africa’s Pretoria High School for girls protested after being told to “fix” their hair by administrators — a directive that meant anything from chemically straightening their natural hair to keeping braided and locked styles under a centimeter in diameter. A student at another school “said she was warned she might not be able to sit for exams because of her Afro,” according to The Washington Post. And more recently, New Jersey high-schooler Andrew Johnson was forced to cut off his locs during a wrestling competition or forfeit the champion match.
The unassailable fact is that many Black people are used to conforming to non-Black people’s standards for their hair as a cost for taking up space in school or at work. In the absence of laws or guidelines like the ones emerging in New York City, determining what to do is a combination of time, experience, and environment.
Several Jopwell employees recalled moments where they confronted “The Hair Issue” at work and how they dealt with it.
Christiana, 30, says she is highly aware of the societal norms, especially working in the financial sector where few people look like her. “When I’m interviewing, I don’t want to scare off the hiring manager,” she admitted. “I make sure that if my hair is natural, I wear a wig — I’m very conscious of that. And then once I get the job, I’m like —” (cue the ‘Me at interview vs me when I get the job’ meme).
Nadia Abouzaid, 32, agreed that finance can be a particularly rough industry. “I’ve had friends who were straight up told by their boss to straighten their hair,” she says. Employees do have to be considerate of the environment; for example, if you work in a bank, you probably can’t have hot pink hair. However, “I’m always of the mind that curly isn’t unprofessional,” Abouzaid says. “Curly isn’t unkempt. Curly isn’t not neat. So you should just wear your hair the way you feel comfortable and be confident about who you are.”
Tiara Budd, 27, talked about feeling comfortable enough to speak up for someone else, mostly because she had seniority on her side. “My supervisor at the time went over to (the only other black employee) and touched her — was like in her hair — and I literally had to turn to her and say, ‘You need to take her hands off her head,’” Budd says. “It was very awkward but at that moment, I felt really empowered to speak up for my friend.”
Michela Pennicooke, 30, agreed that speaking up can be empowering but deeply uncomfortable — even if you have a good relationship with the other person. As someone who is mixed race, she has often encountered “white women trying to attach my blackness to the texture of my hair,” including a former boss.
“My boss at the time touched my hair and said I wasn’t as black as other girls because I had softer hair. In that instance, I wondered if I was supposed to defend how black I am.”
Black women aren’t the only ones subject to scrutiny. Another Jopwell employee, Nate Pringle, 38, talked about starting locs after graduating from college and dealing with his family’s and colleagues’ negative reactions.
“My grandmother looked at me and said, ‘Baby, what did you do with your hair?’ From her perspective, I’d gone to the trouble of going to school and getting internships, and this was the end of my professional opportunities.”
Pringle “brushed aside” her concern as a generational difference until a colleague saw an old photo of him and remarked that he liked Pringle’s old style (a Caesar) “way better” — adding that their boss found the low-cut style more “professional.”
“That hurt because I put a lot of work into my appearance,” Pringle says. “Growing your hair out naturally is a lot of work — and it is expensive. It opened my eyes to the concept that maybe my grandmother wasn't so out of touch with what a lot of folks were thinking.”
No one on staff believed there was a prescribed “right way” to handle these situations, but a common consensus seemed to be that working in spaces with more people of color decreased the pressure of standing out. In the absence of having support from others, laws like this one in NYC might provide a needed assist.