Recently, I discovered New York City had declared a ban on hair discrimination. Reading the print, I found myself smiling knowing New York had taken these steps in the face of racism and now – legally – no one could discriminate against black hairstyles in the Big Apple. But reading this also triggered an epiphany and my smile quickly began to fade. I knew hair discrimination existed as I’d experienced it, but I didn’t realise just how much of an issue it was becoming. Whilst celebrating the progression of New York for implementing this ban, I realised just how often such petty discrimination must occur.
The ban, introduced in February 2019, clearly pronounces its aim. To remove the ‘wide spread and fundamentally racist belief that black hairstyles are not suited for formal settings and may be unhygienic, disruptive, messy or unkept’. Sadly, so many Americans believe such racist ideologies that New York deemed it necessary to introduce a law to regulate the discrimination and protect black opportunity.
Although this concept is historical, it is not history. Think back to the 2015 Oscars. Dual-heritage actress and model Zendaya graced the red-carpet with an elegant Vivienne Westwood gown, but it wasn’t her outfit that made headlines. It was her new hairstyle: dreadlocks. Zendaya is noted for her stylish looks and more recently has designed her own 70s inspired collection with Tommy Hilfiger; so why is it that the fashion police were so opposed to this look? The media ridiculed her locks and one reporter appalling commented that Zendaya’s hair made her look as though she smelt of ‘patchouli’ and ‘weed’. But, when Kylie Jenner posted a photo with dreadlocks, this same reporter called them ‘edgy’ and ‘bohemian’, suggesting the hair style was not necessarily the issue, but the colour of the person wearing them. Dreadlocks are commonly associated with the Jamaican-born Rastafari faith, which openly uses marijuana as part of their spiritual practice. The comment towards Zendaya not only appeared ignorant, but blatantly racist, directly underlining the hair discrimination which black hair still suffers today.
Alike Zendaya, when my hairstyles deviate from the Eurocentric norm, I frequently face hair discrimination. On occasions when I’ve styled my hair in box braids, I’ve been subject to a lot of disapproving looks and the target of aggressive shoulder shoves. I recently had my hair in faux-locks and the reception of these was much worse than the braids. Walking down the street, faces greeted me with disgust as they bustled past or crossed the street to avoid walking alongside me. The reception was so bad that I found myself self-regulating my appearance. I was due to complete a work placement whilst my hair was in locks, and the night before my start date, I took them out and replaced them with a straight hairdo. Now, the company had not asked me to do this – they hadn’t outlined any hair regulations – but recognising the stigma attached to this style, I went through a process of self-alteration, simply to counteract any stereotypes in the workplace.
Unsurprisingly, black men are also victims of this same prejudice. In 2015, a 16-year-old black male wrestler was forced to either cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the match by a white referee, despite his hair being entirely covered by the head guard, therefore meeting regulations. He was not breaking any rules and had been allowed to fight numerous times in this manner before this. Given little choice, he agreed to cut his hair and proceed with the match. This is not a decision he should have been required to make, though failing to do so would have hindered his chance at success.
Black boys often also face hair discrimination. When I was at school, black boys were told their hair was not allowed to grow past a certain height, so their high-tops were never really high at all. If schools want to regulate hair length like they do hair colour, then go ahead. What I take exception to, is when black boys are not allowed to grow their hair any longer than 5cm in height and other boys can have long hair sweeping past their shoulders. That is where I draw the line, as the rule clearly does not apply to all. I recognise there is a lack of understanding as black hair generally grows up and out, not straight and down, and yet, after trying to explain this, there was still no attempt to try and understand. People – teachers – seemed happy perpetuating this ignorance and placing black boys in isolation as punishment, for their natural hair which was nowhere near as long as some of the white and Asian boys in the school.
Hair discrimination is not only confined to work and school settings. When I am repeatedly asked ‘can I touch your hair?’, this is hair discrimination, exoticism and fetishisation. No, you cannot touch my hair and I am almost certain that you’ve not asked your white friends if you can run your fingers through their hair. When you ask me whether it’s my hair, this is also a form of hair discrimination. These questions are intrusive and quite frankly, none of your business.
So, I commend New York on implementing such a ban, but it saddens me that there was ever a requirement to make hair discrimination illegal in the first place. Let us be.