How Workplace Race Discrimination Based on Hair Happens, and What Workers in New York Can Do About It

On Feb. 1, 2023, Minnesota became at least the 20th state to enact a law that bans discrimination based on hair texture and natural hair styles. Back on Jan. 1, 2023, Illinois’s law barring similar forms of discrimination went into effect. Here in New York, the state and the city have recognized the unacceptable nature of discrimination based on both hair and head coverings. Hair discrimination is an insidious form of mistreatment, as its couches racially or religiously biased misconduct as appropriate under workplace rules barring “unprofessional appearance.” If you have encountered this sort of discrimination at your job, the law in this city and state can potentially protect you. Get in touch with an experienced New York race discrimination lawyer as soon as possible to discuss the options that exist for you.

race discrimination case from last year is an example of how this type of misconduct can harm a worker. The plaintiff, A.G., was a Black woman of Guyanese ancestry. She also was a legal assistant at the New York office of a multi-state law firm, and someone who allegedly encountered discrimination that attacked her natural hairstyles as being unprofessional in her appearance.

According to the assistant, the employer engaged in several instances of race discrimination, many of which were related to hair. In one instance, an office manager allegedly accused A.G. of attending work with an appearance that was not “polished.” A.G.’s immediate supervisor issued a qualified refutation of that assessment, telling A.G. that “I’m not sure what she means, you dress far better than [a fellow legal assistant who was of Asian ancestry] and I, and your hair is nice, well not today but sometimes!” According to the complaint, the A.G. was wearing her hair in an Afro when the supervisor made the “not [nice] today” comment.

On a separate occasion, the office manager placed the Asian legal assistant at A.G.’s desk and assigned her to A.G.’s normal duties of greeting guests to the office. When A.G. asked if it was the result of her attending work with a natural hairstyle and the manager deeming her “unpolished,” the Asian legal assistant told her “not to take it personally,” according to the complaint.

Allegedly, the employer even went so far as to demand that the assistant text photos of her work outfits to obtain prior employer approval. Furthermore, the supervisor allegedly voiced a strong complaint about A.G.’s lotion one day. The ostensibly offending lotion in question was shea butter hand cream which, according to the complaint, represented potential discrimination because “shea butter is an ingredient used in many skincare products popular within” the Black community.

The Myth that Natural Black Hair Looks Unkempt, ‘Unpolished,’ or Unprofessional

Attacking natural Black hairstyles as not “neat,” unprofessional, “unpolished,” and so forth is a common form of race-based mistreatment and is part of the reason why New York now has a statute banning discrimination against workers for wearing their hair in a natural hairstyle. The amendments to both the New York State Human Rights Law and New York City Human Rights Law to ban hair discrimination were enacted in 2019. New York City expanded its ban in 2021. Under the current standard, the NYCHRL says that targeting any of “hair texture, style (e.g., braids, twists, cornrows, fades), length, or use of a head covering (e.g., hijab, yarmulke)” can constitute illegal discrimination.

As this blog has discussed recently, success in a discrimination case can be establishing a singular act of extreme misconduct, or it can be about presenting a series of events that have the cumulative effect of meet the employee’s burden and defeating an employer’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

A.G.’s case was an example of the latter. The court declared that the alleged “individual comments and actions are not particularly egregious. However, when coupled with [A.G.]’s other allegations regarding the disparate enforcement” of other workplace rules, as well as the biased enforcement of the employer’s apparel policies as compared to the Asian legal assistant, on top of the “alleged pay disparities between [A.G.] and similarly situated white and Asian employees,” A.G. had enough to meet her burden, defeat the employer’s motion, and continue pursuing her claim for relief.

Discriminating at work because of a person’s natural hairstyle isn’t just wrong… it’s against the law. It can happen to anyone but it disproportionately hurts Black people. If you’ve encountered this type of mistreatment at your place of work, get in touch with the experienced New York race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. We are proud to help workers harmed in this way to get justice. To find out more, contact us online or at How Workplace Race Discrimination Based on Hair Happens, and What Workers in New York Can Do About It to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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