Legislating Black hairstyles is unfortunately necessary

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(Photo by Joseph Kellner on Unsplash)

By Baltimore Sun Editorial Board

The need to legislate Black hair seems ridiculous on its face. I mean, it’s hair. We all have it. It comes in different textures, colors and lengths — all determined by our DNA. We can alter it with chemicals, blow dryers, flat irons and bottles of hair dye. But at some point it will bounce back to its natural state.

Unfortunately, the natural state of African American hair isn’t deemed appropriate by too many workplaces and other public institutions. African Americans lose their jobs because of their hair. They are told it is unkempt and unclean when it is not. Or that it doesn’t fit the image a company is trying to present. Some schools have gone as far as banning afrocentric hairstyles like braids, twists and dreadlocks, sending kids home who dare to show up with such styles. Only straightened hair based on European standards of beauty are allowed.

This discrimination of African Americans based on biased and subjective views needs to stop, but sadly, we have learned that companies can’t be trusted to do it on their own.

That’s why we are glad to see that the Baltimore City Council will soon take up legislation to ban such discrimination, and that a state lawmaker also plans to introduce a similar bill during this year’s General Assembly session that starts Wednesday. In fact, these laws are long overdue. Discrimination based on hair texture is no different than discriminating based on race, particularly when it is overwhelmingly African Americans whose hair is usually in question. People should be judged on the how they do their jobs and not whether their hair is in a structured bone-straight bob or a fluffy, close-cropped afro.

In Baltimore, Councilman Robert Stokes’ legislation would prohibit discrimination based on the texture and style of someone’s hair in schools, workplaces and housing. Seems like a no-brainer in a city that is 63% Black, but it is also something that should be banned in every county in the state. Such issues might be more of a problem in more conservative areas or places that have smaller African American populations.

The legislation to be introduced by Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat who sports dreadlocks, would ban discrimination across the state based on hairstyle and traits associated with race.

Maryland is part of a growing movement now paying attention to an issue that has long haunted African Americans and made them feel bad about themselves. California, New Jersey and New York have passed anti-discrimination hair laws, and in Montgomery County, lawmakers passed legislation late last year that prohibits discrimination against natural hairstyles, including “braids, locks, Afros, curls and twists.” Violating the law comes with a fine of up to $5,000. Many other states are considering similar hair discrimination bans.

Some companies have learned the hard way through expensive lawsuits and bad publicity. A former Baltimore “Hooters Girl” was awarded more than $250,000 in 2015 after a manager at the restaurant’s Inner Harbor location chided her for the color of her hair. Blond highlights weren’t permissible because “black people don’t have blond hair,” the boss told her with a straight face. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has also brought lawsuits on behalf natural-haired clients.

But the courts aren’t necessarily the best avenue to tackle this issue. Legislation will protect all African Americans and not just the ones who can afford a pricey lawyer, or convince one to take on the case in hopes of a nice payout in the end. Companies will be forced to think twice about discriminating if they know it is illegal.

Del. Smith said she wishes such legislation wasn’t necessary. We agree. There are other more pressing issues we should have to worry about, like crime and improving education. Maybe one day we’ll reach a place when people of all races and ethnicities are embraced.

We are already starting to see some change. Look around and you will see more African Americans wearing natural styles. Hair products to maintain these styles occupy much more space on store shelves than the straightening relaxers that used to line the aisles. YouTube videos give tutorials on how to style curly heads of hair. African Americans want to be their natural selves and hopefully legislation will make it easier for them to do that.

This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

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