Last week the New York City Human Rights Commission released new guidelines that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of hairstyle. Under the guidelines, residents have the right to have “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.” And any targeting they may face in a public place like work or school can be deemed racial discrimination.
When I read this long overdue measure toward equality, I immediately thought about my grandparents and a specific day in the spring of 2012.
I was just a few weeks away from my college graduation and was visiting my family in Virginia during spring break. I recall sitting at the table in my grandparents’ house with my grandma, grandpa, mom, sister, aunt and cousin. We were having an important family discussion, or what some might call an intervention.
The issue on the table? My hair.
I’d recently stopped getting relaxers after more than 13 years of keeping my hair chemically straightened. Trying to tame my growing naps with just a flatiron was proving a frustrating and futile fight, so I grabbed the scissors to finally do a big chop and cut off all my relaxed ends, revealing a teeny weeny Afro for all to see.
And what my family saw was a problem that needed solving.
“I believe that my hair is a beautiful reflection of my Blackness and not a negative indication of my character or work ethic.”
It’s not as if they didn’t think I was cute (because I was and I still am). My family was concerned about my future. More specifically, they were worried about my career prospects. As a soon-to-be college grad with dreams of being a broadcast journalist, I needed to get a job ― and my grandparents knew all too well the struggle to be taken seriously as a Black person in a world overwhelmingly dominated by white people and white standards of beauty and professionalism.
These may sound like harsh and shallow concerns, but my family just wanted me to be realistic and do what was best for me and my career. They didn’t want me to have to deal with people who would take one look at me and my hair and consider me unintelligent or unkempt. They wanted to give me a fighting chance in a workforce where there were already so few people who looked like me. So they strongly encouraged me to straighten my hair or at least invest in a really nice weave.
I refused. I refused because I believed then and I believe now that my hair is a beautiful reflection of my Blackness and not a negative indication of my character or work ethic. I understood because I had been taught that there are rules to survival as a Black person in America that rely on respectability and assimilation to Eurocentric standards for speech and style. But I knew the only way to change these rules was to defy them by being my nappy-headed (some might say hard-headed) self.
So I kept my Afro and I dealt with the consequences. I struggled to find a job in my field, I was asked on interviews if I would consider straightening my hair or wearing a wig, both of which I refused to do. And when I did manage to find salaried work at a call center, I dealt with co-workers and bosses who called my speech “ghetto.” I struggled to wear the mandatory headsets that wouldn’t fit over my head and my hair.
But I kept going. I’ve been blessed to have eventually found jobs in my field at publications that allow me to show up as my full self, Afro and all (shout-out to Essence magazine and HuffPost!), and do work that I care about. Now my hair and I are both flourishing. Many other Black professionals, however, have not been so lucky.
“If my hair is to be a reflection of my character, it should show the world my inner beauty, creativity and determination in the face of strong odds.”
Last year, news anchor Brittany Noble Jones was allegedly fired from her on-air job in Jackson, Mississippi, for switching to natural hairstyles after years of wearing her hair straight. In 2010, an Alabama woman named Chastity Jones had a job offer rescinded after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks, and in 2001, Hampton University in Virginia implemented a dress code that barred students in its business school from wearing cornrows and dreadlocks.
Adults aren’t the only ones who face exclusion because of our hair. Students at a South African school famously protested a dress code that deemed Afro puffs a violation. And as recently as December, a high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced to cut off his dreadlocks in the middle of a match or forfeit. Children as young as 6 (and possibly even younger) have been suspended, expelled, banned or otherwise disciplined for their hairstyles for decades. What’s it going to take for Black hair to be seen as good enough as it is?
It’s going to take us deciding to push back. Rules that governed Black behavior in the past ceased to exist when we collectively refused to follow them. I love and appreciate my grandparents’ generation for what they went through to make sure I’d have the opportunities I have today. Now it’s my turn to take some risks to make sure future generations of Black girls and boys don’t have to fit their future into a box.
Things are finally changing in at least one part of the world. Now that New York City has formally made discrimination on the basis of hairstyle illegal, I hope more cities will follow suit. Whether we’re wearing weaves, waves or TWAs, we should be judged by what’s inside our heads, not what’s on top. And if my hair is to be a reflection of my character, it should show the world my inner beauty, my creativity, style, energy, flair and determination in the face of strong odds.