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Workplace Issues: NYC discrimination guidance focuses on hairstyles & race.

Byline: Lindy Korn

New York City's Commission on Human Rights is putting employers on notice that banning or restricting hairstyles that are associated with black people is a form of racial discrimination.

The Commission protects New Yorkers' rights to wear their natural hair or hairstyles closely linked to their racial, ethnic or cultural identities, which for black people includes Afros, locs, braids and Bantu knots among other styles, the guidance said.

The guidance further noted that policies that were facially non-discriminatory but applied disparately would also violate the anti-discrimination law, and employers could not use corporate image, customer preference or health or safety concerns as an excuse for a biased policy; the employer should look for other solutions before a ban or restriction.

Schools and other places of public accommodation were also addressed in the guidance, which said that they chose to focus on schools in addition to employers because discriminatory hair and grooming policies had "proliferated in educational settings."

"Policies that limit the ability to wear natural hair or hairstyles associated with black people aren't about neatness or professionalism, they are about limiting the way black people move through workplaces, public spaces and other settings," NYC Human Rights Commissioner and Chair Carmelyn P. Malalis said in the release. "This new legal enforcement guidance will help school administrators, employers, and providers of public accommodations to understand that black New Yorkers have the right to wear their hair however they choose without fear of stigma or retaliation."

The guidance pointed out that there is a widespread, fundamentally racist belief that natural hair and hairstyles associated with black people are messy, unhygienic and improper for formal settings. Hair-based racial discrimination causes black people both physical and psychological harm, the guidance said.

Kimberl Crenshaw, a law professor who is affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles and Columbia Law School, said in the Commission's release that this type of discrimination was often overlooked because it disproportionately affected black people, and particularly black women and girls. Crenshaw said that black people have often been compelled to give up their preferred hairstyles and use chemicals or other manipulations to change their natural hair texture to conform to "arbitrary and aesthetic expectations."

These discriminatory demands undermine not only their physical well-being but also their access to employment, their enjoyment of educational opportunities and their dignity, Crenshaw said.

The New York State Division of Human Rights does not have a similar provision. However, discrimination based on hair or hairstyles that disparately affect a person based on their race can be alleged as race discrimination, and perhaps citing to the New York City Commission on Human Rights' new guidance will provide persuasive authority.

Lindy Korn practices at The Law Office of Lindy Korn and can be reached at, (716) 856-KORN (5676) or

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Publication:Daily Record (Rochester, NY)
Date:Feb 22, 2019
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