Race discrimination in employment is not limited to overt expressions of bias. It can be more subtle, particularly when an individual’s expression of their racial, ethnic, or cultural identity is involved. This often occurs with regard to hairstyles. Antidiscrimination statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and other factors. The city’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) recently issued new guidelines that address how anti-Black racism in employment can manifest as complaints about employee hairstyles. A review of court decisions around the country show some recognition of hairstyle discrimination, but New York City race discrimination attorneys should look first to the NYCHRL and the CHR’s guidelines.
In the context of the new guidelines, the CHR defines “Black” to include individuals “who identify as African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, [or] Afro-Latin-x/a/o.” It identifies hairstyles commonly associated with Black people’s “racial, ethnic, or cultural identities” as including “locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, [and] Afros.” The guidelines state that “Black hairstyles are…an inherent part of Black identity,” and are therefore protected by the NYCHRL.
Some courts around the country have recognized race discrimination claims based on employers’ alleged treatment of employees’ hairstyles. A plaintiff alleged that her employer began discriminating against her after she began wearing her hair in an “Afro” style in Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mut. Hosp. Ins., Inc., 538 F. 2d 164 (7th Cir. 1976). The court, in recounting how the defendant allegedly expressed its objection to the plaintiff’s hairstyle, noted that “[a] lay person’s description of racial discrimination could hardly be more explicit.” Id. at 168. It went on to find that “[t]he reference to the Afro hairstyle” was an expression of “the employer’s racial discrimination.” Id.