Why The Need To Enforce Guidelines To Protect Black Hair Is A Sad Reality
"Our hair struggle isn’t new."
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It wasn’t until February 2019 that the New York City Commission on Human Rights released a guideline which prohibits discrimination against natural hair, but also sets up legal recourse to people being targeted based on their hair and hairstyle at work, school and public spaces.
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Honestly, as a Black woman, this news had me feeling all types of ways. I felt both relieved than saddened.
First, I thought, why wasn't this law in existence long ago? Also, in 2019 why do we still need this type of law? But most of us actually know why. The reality is, Black people in America have been programmed to believe that their natural hair is less than. We have been conditioned to believe that in order to fit into American society we must change what is natural to us. This brings me to think about my own hair journey.
Growing up, I remember in the ‘90s the programming of mainstream media. They would repeatedly feed us images of Black women with straight, long and glossy hair. Rarely did I see the representation of Black women with natural curls, afros or locs. This programming in American society of Black women having to assimilate into a European/white standard of beauty has had a negative impact on how we identify ourselves. My truth is that unconsciously I didn’t want my hair to expose my blackness.
As a child, I learned the false belief that in order to be or feel accepted by the outside world, I had to change my hair. Therefore in doing this, I unconsciously suppressed my sense of self for a long time. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I really became aware of the negative effects of the programming I'd been following for the earlier part of my life. I didn’t want my daughter to go through all the shedding of these false beliefs that I had carried for so long. I made a conscious choice to begin my natural hair journey in order to teach my daughter to love and embrace not just her hair, but her entire being.
The sad reality is that we still need law enforced guidelines to protect Black people from being racially discriminated against, especially when it comes to our hair. It's shocking that our hair is still a matter we have to defend, especially when it is so deeply rooted in our racial and cultural identity. It's equivalent to denying someone the right to freely be who they are and at the same time telling them they are not appropriate.
In recent months, multiple cases of discrimination have made their way to mainstream media even though we know that this is happening every day.
Just a couple of months before the guidelines were released in New York City, a New Jersey high school wrestling official cut off the locs of teen wrestler Andrew Johnson. Under immense pressure, Andrew was given the option to forfeit the match if he did not allow them to cut off his locs. I cringed — Black people everywhere cringed — when we saw the clip of Andrew’s locs being cut off by his coach.
For most people of color, growing locs is not a superficial thing, it's a deep-rooted journey they chose to embark on. It’s disturbing to know that certain institutions have no understanding when it comes to our relationship to our hair, nor do they care to understand. Therefore, they continue to follow these anti-Black policies and regulations all while denying Black people their basic human rights. Rights such as being able to wear their hair in its natural form and being able to style it as they choose. The community rallied in support of the young athlete, and even the Governor of New Jersey made the case that no one should have to choose between their identity and playing sports. In 2019, the truth is no one should have to choose between expressing their identity and appeasing white people.
Our hair struggle isn’t new. For centuries, Black women have been programmed to believe that natural hair and hairstyles are not good enough for professional settings. We have been made to believe that because our hair does not meet the white standard of beauty it translates into our natural hair is simply not appropriate. But let’s go back to 1981 when the first case of racial discrimination based on a hairstyle was taken to federal court, Rogers v. American Airlines.
Renee Rogers, a Black American woman who worked for American Airlines for 11 years, filed a discrimination suit. Her argument was that her hairstyle of cornrows was a part of her cultural heritage. The judge ruled against her in federal court and had the audacity to claim she got her hair styled in braids as soon as the movie Ten came out, where a white actress named Bo Derek had her hair styled in braids. The court also argued that braids are easy enough to change into another style and are not connected to a certain race, therefore they do not fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
It makes me question if this case was tried in 2019, would Rogers have won the discrimination suit or would it have the same results it did in 1981? We will never know for sure.
After all of this, one thing is for certain: the New York City Commission of Human Rights gives people a sense of hope that older institutions may begin to question their own policies, especially the ones created by those who uphold a colonizer perspective towards people of color.