california has become the first state to ban discrimination based on natural hair

In a landmark bill, the state has prohibited employers from enforcing rules that disproportionately impact black Americans.

by Liam Hess
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04 July 2019, 1:10pm

Photography Richard Burbridge. The Audible Issue, i-D No. 189, August 99

It’s a well-known fact that racial discrimination on the basis of natural hairstyles has been a recurring hurdle for black employees from boardrooms to bars. In 2010, an Alabama woman interviewing for a job at a call centre was told that in order to receive an offer, she would have to cut off her locs; when she declined, the job offer was rescinded. In 2013, a black female executive at oil giant BP was dismissed after being told that her braided hair made colleagues “uncomfortable”. Just last year, a black high school wrestler was instructed by a referee to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the match.

And while these might be the most high profile cases in recent memory, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the daily prejudices faced by black people for wearing their hair naturally in afros, braids, twists and locs.

Today, California became the first U.S. state to pass a bill preventing discrimination on the basis of hairstyle, with the law intended in particular to protect black students and employees who often feel pressure to endure expensive chemical straightening treatments in order to conform to cultural beauty standards.

"I believe that any law, policy or practice that sanctions a job description that immediately excludes me from a profession -- not because of my capacity or my capabilities or my experience but because of my hairstyle choice -- is long overdue for reform," said Holly J Mitchell, the state senator who introduced the bill.

“Many black employees -- including your staff members -- will tell you, if given the chance, that the struggle to maintain what society has deemed a ‘professional image’ while protecting the health and integrity of their hair remains a defining and paradoxical struggle in their work experience, not usually shared by their non-black peers.”

While New York City outlawed discrimination on the basis of hair in February of last year, California has become the first state to enact a bill, although similar anti-discrimination laws have been tabled and are pending in the states of New York and New Jersey. It might mark a step in the right direction for the rights of black Americans in the workplace, but it’s clear there is still a long way to go.

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