Wearing natural hair, braids now protected in New York
African Americans in Rochester react to a New York state law ban aimed at protecting black workers. Erin Gavle, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Tired of the harsh toll chemical relaxers were taking on her hair, Mattie Johnson decided to cut her hair short, grow it out and embrace her natural curls.
"It took two or three years for it to all grow out, but it's more comfortable and way healthier, it's so much easier to maintain a natural hairstyle," said Johnson, stopping by Hair by Vee, a South Clinton Avenue beauty salon run by her daughter Vanessa Crumity. "It's more versatile, too. I can flat iron it, or wet it for curl."
A new state law signed July 12 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that outlaws racial discrimination based on natural hairstyles. That includes wearing afros, braids, cornrows, fades, Bantu knots, twists and locs — and this is long overdue, said Crumity.
With Cuomo's signature, New York recently became only the second state in the U.S. to address the issue of racial discrimination on the basis of hair.
"This should (not) even be an issue," she said. "I've heard from too many overqualified people who were passed over for positions, or have had clients who come in and want to get their hair cut because of their position. It's an unfair standard."
'Separate and unequal treatment': California poised to be first state to ban race-based discrimination against natural hair
There have been high-profile incidents
And it's an issue that's been highlighted by some recent high-profile incidents. Consider:
- a high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced by a referee in December to cut off his dreadlocks right before a match under threat of forfeit;
- an 11-year-old girl was sent home from a Catholic school in Louisiana in August after being told her hair extensions were "unacceptable";
- just last week, a Georgia elementary school came under fire for posting signs inside the school depicting "appropriate" and "inappropriate" haircuts for boys and girls — cuts with designs etched into the hair were unacceptable for boys and girls in braids were considered inappropriate;
- back in January, former Mississippi news anchor Brittany Noble alleged she was fired from her job after filing complaints about discrimination, including having been chastised for wearing her hair natural.
We spoke to people at Village gate about the law preventing discrimination based on hair style
"For much of our nation's history, people of color — particularly women — have been marginalized and discriminated against simply because of their hairstyle or texture," Governor Cuomo said when signing the bill. "We are taking an important step toward correcting that history and ensuring people of color are protected from all forms of discrimination."
Protected hairstyles: NY bans racial discrimination based on hair texture or style
A recent study by the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) coalition shows a black woman is 80 percent more likely to change her natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work. And, black women are 50 percent more likely to be sent home or know of a black woman sent home from the workplace because of her hair.
The political symbolism of policing black hairstyles dates back to the 1800s as a stand-in for a kind of black identity that doesn't want to assimilate, Noliwe Rooks, professor of Africana studies at Cornell University told USA Today earlier this year.
"It’s at the moment of when you had large numbers of African-Americans leaving enslavement and the Great Migration, so there was more contact between communities on more equal footing," said Rooks, author of Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women. "The narrative is ‘You just don’t look civilized. You just don’t look professional. "
On his way out of Wosa's of New York, Martin Williams said that consciously choosing to wear natural hairstyles has an empowering effect on black employees in the workplace.
"That also helps them to be more confident in themselves — both men and women — and able to express themselves more," Williams said. "The hair system overall has come a long way from the 1900s."
He acknowledged that women tend to feel more pressure to change their hair for work. "Being in an office, you have to conform to where hair has to be straightened and has to be tucked or in a ponytail.
"I for one, think [natural styles] help to liberate them, and help them be who they are, be true to their nature and culture," Williams said.
An emergency department technician at Rochester Regional Health, Johnson said she hasn't faced any backlash at work for choosing natural hairstyles, but she's familiar with others who have. One of her sons turned down a job because he was told from the outset that he'd have to shear off his dreadlocks, she said.
"This is what our hair is meant to be, it is not meant to have all those chemicals in it," she said.
On the other hand, she said, she's also seeing more women like her who are rejecting a beauty standard that holds Eurocentric hairstyles as the ideal.
"We should just be accepting of people and how they are, and not be so judgmental about things," she said.
Follow Meaghan McDermott and Erin Gavle: @meagmc and @erinkgavle.