The Right to be Natural in Peace: NYC's New Non-Discrimination Law


New York City just became the first US state to legally recognize a truth that many of us are familiar with: curly and afro-textured hair and Natural hair styles are often mislabeled as disruptions in public spaces.

Last week, the City changed its Human Rights Law to make discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles a form of discrimination, which really symbolizes a couple victories wrapped up in one. It gives the Natural movement a boost in cutting down harmful expectations to fit the “typical” Western European look. It also gives us backing when we try to call out our haters both in and outside legal settings. 

This is important because - when we are kept out of schools, offices and other public spaces for how we wear our hair – Naturals lose out on time, money and life experiences. When we are told to change our hairstyles to fit Euro-centric standards – it takes a big, direct hit on our wallets and our dignity.

So it’s about time we had the public and legal support to simply live our Natural lives in peace.

Why We Need the Law: Punishment of Natural Hair in Public Spaces

Like many things, negativity towards natural hair in public spaces stretches back to colonial attitudes – attitudes that labeled curly and coily tresses as “inferior” to “good hair” (straight hair), and as something that should be hated.

For decades, this hatred has manifested in coily-textured households through heat-based and chemical straightening treatments that leave behind agonies ranging from scalp burns, to premature balding, to horrendous wigs (though don't get me wrong - when a wig is on-point it's a great protective style option).

A different version of this hatred has been held by people out in the larger world too. It's seemed to surge with every new wave of the Natural hair movement. Even Michelle Obama felt the pressure of racialized and gendered double standards to keep her hair straight despite going natural by 2010.

Michelle rocking her natural curls for the December 2018/January 2019 cover of Essence.

Sadly, Michelle is far from being alone. Studies show that a majority of people, “regardless of their race and gender”, have been socially conditioned to, “hold some bias towards women of color based on their hair”.

That bias follows Naturals into the office, the classroom and even into clubs.

Over the last 10 years, children across the US have been punished for wearing Natural styles to school.They’ve have been pulled out of class and hit with (threats of) detention, suspension and bans on their Natural styles. For Mya and Deanna (15 years old, Massachusetts) it was for wearing box braids, for Vanessa Vandyke (12, Texas) – a fro-hawk, for Jenesis Johnson (11, Florida) – an afro, and for 7-year-old Tiana Parker (Oklahoma) – dreadlocks. The list goes on.

There’ve even been articles about teachers who made it their business to cut students’ hair – which is exactly what happened to Lamya Cammon (7, Wisconsin) and a Native American high-schooler in New Mexico when they came to school with their hair in traditional, braided styles.   

The story doesn’t read any better for Naturals in US workplaces. In 2010, Chastity Jones was told by an Alabama employer that she wouldn’t be hired because of her dreadlocks. In 2018, Aireial Mack was fired from a Louisiana LA Fitness because her afro was, “not up to company standards”. As of 2014, Army Regulation 670-1 banned dreadlocks, cornrows and other popular Natural hairstyles. The 2017 edition of 670-1 allows braids, cornrows, twists and locks, but imposes restrictions on how these styles should be done.

In 2006, Kimberley Hines learned first-hand that Naturals aren’t even safe from this kind of ridicule when we go out to have fun. She was turned away from a Virginia Beach club because they didn’t allow braids, twists, cornrows or dreadlocks.

These stories make Natural hair discrimination seem like a US problem – but it’s not just an “American thing”.

In the UK, Chyna Cowie-Sullivan was ordered by Kent’s Fulston Manor School to remove her braids or face consequences. Despite backlash for their discriminatory practices, many schools in New Zealand are holding fast to their bans on afros and braids. 

These attitudes hit Naturals in countries where majority of the population have kinks and curls too. South African schools have recently been put on blast for policing their Natural students. Pretoria High School has policies against afros, cornrows, dreadlocks and loose braids. In Lawson Brown High School, a girl was prevented from taking her exams because she refused to tame her afro. In the Bahamas, officials from CR Walker Senior High School threatened Tayjha Deleveaux with suspension because they thought her afro was “untidy” and that natural hair should only be kept in braids or pony tails.

Grown Naturals around the world don’t have it much easier. Working women in the UK, for example, have spoken out about being told not to turn up to work with their natural hair, of being encouraged to wear straight weaves and of colleagues saying how, “horrible and unprofessional” Natural styles are.

It’s uplifting to see that Naturals are fighting back against these abuses.

Pretoria High’s students launched a very successful, peaceful protest against their school’s unjust policies and Tayjha started her own online movement, #SupportThePuff.

Zulaikha Patel and her amazing fro protesting discriminatory policies at Pretoria High School (2016).

Parents of Naturals in US schools have also been seeking administrative and legal action for the discrimination that unnecessarily interferes with their kids’ abilities to participate and excel in the classroom.

It’s refreshing to see that NYC is taking actual action to offer Naturals much-needed support in these battles.  

So, What Does the Law Say & How’s it Going to Help Us?

New York City Human Rights Law guidelines now officially recognize that, “[t]here is a widespread and fundamentally racist belief that black hairstyles are not suited for formal settings, and may be unhygienic, messy, disruptive or unkempt”, and therefor protect, “the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state”.

It bans prohibiting these styles and requiring Naturals to wear straightened styles. It also bans punishing, threatening, or refusing to hire Naturals for wearing these styles.

NYC Naturals can now advocate for the employers, schools and the public service providers they interact with daily to change their policies and practices to meet these standards. Anyone who violates the guidelines could face up to a US$250,000 fine.

People who feel like they’ve been discriminated against for their Natural hair can either file a complaint with the NYC Human Rights Commission’s Law Enforcement Bureau within one year of the discriminatory act, or file a complaint in court within three years of the discriminatory act.

Hopefully, the law will also be an encouragement and a blueprint for other US states and countries around the world to stand behind their own Natural communities.

For more info, read the full text of the new guidelines here.


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