Although it is often touted as one of the world’s most liberal places, New York City can be quite regressive when it comes to Black hair. But now, in response to multiple complaints from women who faced loss of employment because of their kinky strands, the New York City Commission on Human Rights has taken action. New guidelines not only classify texture-based prejudice as racial discrimination—but they also make employers liable for up to a quarter of a million dollars in penalties. 

The New York Times was given a copy of the policy in advance of its release and reported yesterday (February 18):

The change in law applies to anyone in New York City but is aimed at remedying the disparate treatment of Black people; the guidelines specifically mention the right of New Yorkers to maintain their “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.”

In addition, employers cannot require workers to straighten hair, and grooming policies no longer can state that hair must be a few inches from the scalp, as that could target Afro-wearers. And the rules don’t just apply to employees; reports The Guardian, “Businesses are prohibited from discriminating against would-be customers. A nightclub, for example, will not be able to enforce a dress code banning certain hairstyles.”

These guidelines—the first of their kind in the nation—apply to hair or hairstyles at work, school or public spaces. It does not apply to policies involving covering hair for safety or hygiene, such as employees in food establishments.

Other than outright saying that this kind of discrimination is race-based, the guidelines also state that people who have been harassed, threatened, punished, demoted or fired because of the texture or style of their hair have legal recourse. This can include their employer having to pay penalties up to $250,000 or, reports The Times, the commission can force companies and institutions to rehire the person who was terminated.

Since the 1980s, Black women who worked in front desk positions—at restaurants and hotels, for example—have been fired from jobs for wearing their hair in cornrows and other non-straight styles. It was once so frequent that the Hotel and Restaurant Union called cornrows a “workers’ rights issue,” reports ElleIn 1988, Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH co-organized a boycott of Hyatt Hotels to protest anti-cornrow policies. 

And there are still stories, from Chastity Jones—who lost a federal court case in 2016 after an Alabama company rescinded her job offer because she would not cut her locs—to high school student Andrew Johnson, who in December was forced to cut his locs (publicly in a school gymnasium) or else forfeit a wrestling match.

Yet it has taken until 2019, and only in New York City, for texture discrimination to be labeled racial. The new guidelines, writes The Times, “are based on the argument that hair is inherent to one’s race (and can be closely associated with ‘racial, ethnic or cultural identities’) and is therefore protected under the city’s human rights laws, which outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion and other protected classes.” The guidelines are a direct result of complaints from employees at four organizations; two in the Bronx (at a nonprofit and a medical facility), one in Queens (a restaurant) and another on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (a hair salon).

“There’s nothing keeping us from calling out these policies prohibiting natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with Black people,” Carmelyn P. Malalis, the commissioner and chairwoman of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, told The Times. “They are based on racist standards of appearance [and perpetuate] racist stereotypes that say Black hairstyles are unprofessional or improper.”