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More than hair: How New York City shaped the first-ever hair discrimination ban

HOST INTRO: Two months ago, the New York City Commission on Human Rights introduced a set of guidelines banning workplaces, schools and public spaces from discriminating against people on the basis of hair. Since the new law took effect, seven people have made complaints. Andrea Salcedo explains why the Human Rights Commission introduced the new regulations.


SALCEDO: Maia Young is sitting inside Natural Sisters hair salon in Harlem. The sound of the blow dryer competes with the soca music playing from the speakers. In the back of the salon, two women with their hair coiled around red and blue sponges sit inside hair steamers —a machine that looks something like a spaceship.

SALCEDO: Young’s stylist has just finished deep conditioning and washing what Young describes as her “afro puff.”

YOUNG: I usually have an afro puff or just a low puff in its natural state and by the time I walk out it’s flowing and it’s stretched.

SALCEDO: Her afro is split down the middle. She says she wears her natural hair with pride, but that wasn’t always the case.

YOUNG 1: For me, it took me a minute to come around to it because I did go to a predominantly white, independent private school growing up so I was never comfortable with the way my hair stood out.

SALCEDO: Young is a senior at Columbia University studying literature. She is here today to get a silky press for her graduation next week. This hair treatment and style will leave her afro as the name puts it, silky smooth. Young is comfortable with her natural hair her, but her mom, has a preference for this special occasion.

YOUNG 2: My mom wants me to get my hair pressed for graduation to kind of symbolize the ceremony and the celebration of the whole event.

SALCEDO: Young says hair is part of her identity. It’s how she sees herself, but it can also be how other people see her, or even treat her. And that’s where the new law comes in.

SAUNDERS 1: If you are someone who does not have personal experience with this, it can be hard to understand. Well, it’s just hair. Why is it so meaningful?

SALCEDO: That’s Brittny Saunders. She is the New York City Deputy Commissioner of Human Rights. She wrote the new regulations. Saunders is African-American and throughout her life, she says she struggled with accepting her own hair.

SAUNDERS 2: I remember being younger and comparing my hair to other people’s hair. I have like you know framed drawings from when I was little and like the way that I represented my hair is very different that the way I actually looked and I think that that was a reflection of the messages that I was taking in from our brader culture outcue.

SALCEDO: New York has had a law against discrimination in the workplace for decades. But Saunders needed to make the point that that law applies to hair too. She says the commission started paying attention to news reports of people in workplaces and schools who were being harassed for wearing their natural hair. Like the case of the wrestler in New Jersey.

Archival tape from ABC: Disgust tonight over this video of now circulating the internet of this moment of humiliation. New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson having his dreadlocks cut by a trainer before a match. He was forced to have his hair cut by a referee in order to compete or forfeit the match.

SALCEDO: A referee forced a high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks before a match or else, he would not have been able to compete. Saunders says the video broke her heart.

SAUNDERS 3: We wanted to make it absolutely clear that if you have a grooming standard in your workplace, club or bar or restaurant or school, whatever it may be… where you say no locks, no afros, no fades, no bantu knots, if you have explicit prohibitions against hairstyles or hair textures that are closely associated with black people, that that’s a form of race based discrimination and is unacceptable under the NYC Human Rights Law.

SALCEDO: So far, seven cases have been filed since the guidelines went into effect. All of these complaints were made by women and most happened in the workplace. In one case, a woman says she was told that her dreadlocks were “dirty.” These cases could go two ways. Both parties could settle or the complaints would be litigated in an administrative court. Ultimately, the commissioner Carmen Malalais is the final adjudicator. If businesses are found guilty of discrimination, they can pay fines as high as $250,000.


SALCEDO: At Natural Sisters hair salon in Harlem, the most requested hair style is the silky press. Egypt Buck is a stylist and he says his clients often come in asking to get their hair straightened before a job interview. He says he gets it because he’s experienced hair discrimination in his own life.

BUCK: I’ve been a hair stylist for 15 years but before that I had locks, really long locks. So, when I was trying to get like a corporate job it was harder cause all they’d see was my hair, they didn’t see who I was and they didn’t see my talent. They didn’t see my skill set. They’d see the hair.

SALCEDO: Imani Santiago is a hair assistant at the salon. She says she was nervous about her natural hair before she met her husband’s family.

SANTIAGO: I had crochet braids, which is a natural style that makes you look like you have a big fro. I was scared to go like that because I didn’t want my inlaws to get taken back by that.

SALCEDO: Janice Gassam is a business consultant and contributing writer for Forbes magazine who has written about hair. She says it’s encouraging to see New York City implement these guidelines. She hopes other cities will follow.

GASSAM: I think it’ll be really helpful for businesses and organizations. I think many people probably didn’t understand that this is even an issue in the workplace and didn’t really grasp that it’s taking place.


SALCEDO: It’s been almost two hours since Maia Young, the Columbia University student, started getting her silky press. Her hair looks just liked promised. It is now straight and falls right below her shoulders. But this style is only temporary.

YOUNG 3: I can never separate my hair texture from my identity and from my history and the history of my people, and I’m proud of my hair. It’s my crown. It’s an extension of me.

SALCEDO: It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon when Young is about to leave the salon. Egypt Buck, her hair stylist, covers her hair with a silky scarf. Her treatment must last

Andrea Salcedo, Columbia Radio News.


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