Student View
Article Article

Andrew Johnson was told he’d have to forfeit his high school wrestling match unless he cut his hair.

Elizabeth Robertson/TNS/Newscom (Andrew Johnson); NJTV News, with permission of Dominic A. Speziali (cutting hair)

Your Hair, Your Right?

Some students and employees are being targeted for their hairstyle. New ‘hair discrimination’ laws aim to stop the practice.

A high school student in New Jersey forced to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match. Fifteen-year-old twin sisters from Massachusetts threatened with suspension, kicked off their high school track team, and barred from attending prom for wearing braid extensions. An 11-year-old girl sent home from school in Louisiana all because of her braids.

These are just a few recent examples of black students being punished for hairstyles that violated dress codes. Now lawmakers in a growing number of cities and states are hoping to stop that from happening in the future.

California and New York last summer became the first states in the country to pass laws that treat the targeting of people based on their hair or hairstyle at school, at work, or in public spaces as racial discrimination. Cincinnati, Ohio, and Montgomery County, Maryland, also recently passed similar legislation on the heels of New York City, which banned hair discrimination last winter. And New Jersey, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and other states are considering doing the same.

A high school student in New Jersey forced to cut off his dreadlocks or give up a wrestling match. Fifteen-year-old twin sisters from Massachusetts threatened with suspension, kicked off their high school track team, and barred from attending prom for wearing braid extensions. An 11-year-old girl sent home from school in Louisiana all because of her braids.

These are just a few recent examples of black students being punished for hairstyles that violated dress codes. Now lawmakers in a growing number of cities and states are hoping to stop that from happening in the future.

California and New York have led the charge. Last summer, they became the first states in the U.S. to pass laws to protect people from hair discrimination. These laws treat the targeting of people based on their hair or hairstyle at school, at work, or in public spaces as racial discrimination. Cincinnati, Ohio, and Montgomery County, Maryland, also recently passed similar legislation. And New Jersey, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and other states are considering doing the same.

The regulations apply to anyone, but they’re specifically aimed at remedying the unfair treatment many African Americans face because of the texture or style of their hair. They’re based on the argument that hair is inherent to one’s race and is therefore protected under existing human rights laws, which outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion, and other protected classes.

Schools and businesses in those places can no longer ban certain hairstyles associated with black people. Students and employees can file discrimination lawsuits if they believe they’ve been singled out because of their hair.

“Too often we see people of color, particularly women, who are told their hair is unprofessional or not appropriate in public settings,” says New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “These discriminatory policies sideline people of color—keeping children out of their classrooms and diminishing who they are.”

The regulations apply to anyone, but they’re specifically aimed at remedying the unfair treatment many African Americans face because of the texture or style of their hair. They’re based on the argument that hair is inherent to one’s race and is therefore protected under existing human rights laws. Those types of laws outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion, and other protected classes.

Schools and businesses in those places can no longer ban certain hairstyles associated with black people. Students and employees can file discrimination lawsuits if they believe they’ve been singled out because of their hair.

“Too often we see people of color, particularly women, who are told their hair is unprofessional or not appropriate in public settings,” says New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “These discriminatory policies sideline people of color—keeping children out of their classrooms and diminishing who they are.”

NYC.gov/Human Rights

A New York City advertisement alerting residents to the new hair discrimination ban

Stereotyping Hair

Throughout history, black people have been stereotyped because of their hairstyles. Wearing an Afro in the 1960s, for instance, was often seen solely as a political statement even when it was a purely stylistic choice, says Noliwe Rooks, a professor of Africana studies at Cornell University.

“People read our bodies in ways we don’t always intend,” Rooks says.

Many black adults have stories about how their hair has affected them in the workplace. Avery, who works in New York City in court administration and declined to provide her last name for fear of losing her job, says her supervisor, who is white, encourages her to relax her hair, which she often wears in shoulder-length chestnut-colored braids.

“She’s like, ‘You should do your hair,’ when it is already styled, or she says, ‘Straight is better,’” Avery says.

A young black woman who gave her name only as Enie says she quit her job as a cashier at a Wendy’s in New York last year when a manager asked her to cut off her 14-inch hair extensions.

“I quit because you can’t tell me my hair is too long,” says Enie, “but the other females who are other races don’t have to cut their hair.”

Throughout history, black people have been stereotyped because of their hairstyles. For instance, wearing an Afro in the 1960s was often seen solely as a political statement. But sometimes it was a purely stylistic choice, says Noliwe Rooks, a professor of Africana studies at Cornell University.

“People read our bodies in ways we don’t always intend,” Rooks says.

Many black adults have stories about how their hair has affected them in the workplace. Avery works in New York City in court administration. She declined to provide her last name for fear of losing her job. Avery often wears her hair in shoulder-length chestnut-colored braids. She says her supervisor, who is white, encourages her to relax her hair.

“She’s like, ‘You should do your hair,’ when it is already styled, or she says, ‘Straight is better,’” Avery says.

A young black woman who gave her name only as Enie says she has had a similar experience. She quit her job as a cashier at a Wendy’s in New York last year when a manager asked her to cut off her 14-inch hair extensions.

“I quit because you can’t tell me my hair is too long,” says Enie, “but the other females who are other races don’t have to cut their hair.”

Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Twin sisters Mya and Deanna Cook were threatened with suspension because of their braids.

‘A Positive Cultural Shift’

To date, there’s no legal precedent in federal court for the protection of hair. And last spring, the Supreme Court refused a request to review a case in which an African American woman had her job offer at an Alabama insurance company rescinded in 2010 after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks.

But a growing number of institutions have recently changed their policies on hairstyles associated with black culture. The Marines approved braid, twist, and “lock” (often spelled loc) hairstyles in 2015, with some caveats, and the Army lifted its ban on dreadlocks in 2017.

To date, there’s no legal precedent in federal court for the protection of hair. And last spring, the Supreme Court refused a request to review a hair discrimination case. In this case, an African American woman’s job offer at an Alabama insurance company got withdrawn in 2010. This happened after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks.

But a growing number of institutions have recently changed their policies on hairstyles associated with black culture. The Marines approved braid, twist, and “lock” (often spelled loc) hairstyles in 2015, with some caveats. The Army lifted its ban on dreadlocks in 2017.

‘People read our bodies in ways we don’t always intend.’

Some students have recently pushed back against school dress codes too (see “Dress Codes & the First Amendment,” below). In 2017, after Mya and Deanna Cook, 15-year-old twin sisters at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Massachusetts, were punished for wearing hair extensions, they refused to cut their hair and appealed their punishment. The Massachusetts attorney general ordered the school to reverse its policy. And soon after the black high school wrestler, Andrew Johnson, was forced to cut his hair before a match in December, state officials in New Jersey opened up a civil rights investigation.

Experts think we might see more states adopt similar policies to New York’s and California’s as black politicians, like Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, and Ayanna Pressley, who represents Massachusetts in Congress, rise in prominence.

“As more high-profile black women like Abrams and Pressley opt for natural hairstyles, twists, braids,” says Chaumtoli Huq, a professor of labor and employment law at City University of New York School of Law, “we may see a positive cultural shift that would impact how courts view these guidelines that seek to prevent discrimination based on hair.”

Some students have recently pushed back against school dress codes too. (see “Dress Codes & the First Amendment,” below) In 2017, Mya and Deanna Cook, 15-year-old twin sisters at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Massachusetts, were punished for wearing hair extensions. Afterwards, they refused to cut their hair and appealed their punishment. The Massachusetts attorney general ordered the school to reverse its policy. And things shifted for the black high school wrestler, Andrew Johnson. Soon after he was forced to cut his hair before a match in December, state officials in New Jersey opened up a civil rights investigation.

Black politicians like Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, and Ayanna Pressley, who represents Massachusetts in Congress, are gaining higher standing. Experts think more states might adopt similar policies to New York’s and California’s as more black politicians rise in prominence.

“As more high-profile black women like Abrams and Pressley opt for natural hairstyles, twists, braids,” says Chaumtoli Huq, a professor of labor and employment law at City University of New York School of Law, “we may see a positive cultural shift that would impact how courts view these guidelines that seek to prevent discrimination based on hair.”

With reporting by Stacey Stowe of The Times.

With reporting by Stacey Stowe of The Times.

Dress Codes & the First Amendment

Do schools have a right to tell you what to wear?

More than half of U.S. schools have dress codes. People who support them say they cut down on distractions. But critics argue that they stifle students’ expression, and some even say they violate students’ First Amendment right to free speech. Whether that’s actually true is complicated, though.

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students don’t relinquish their right to free speech at school. But the Court added that schools can limit student expression if it poses a “substantial disruption.” Since then, dress code lawsuits have been tried at the state and local level, but the Supreme Court has never taken one on.

“The Supreme Court’s general feeling is that as much as possible ought to be left up to the school districts and the states on dress code issues,” says Stephen Wermiel, a constitutional law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “The effect of that is to leave a wide array of different rulings.”

More than half of U.S. schools have dress codes. People who support them say they cut down on distractions. But critics argue that they stifle students’ expression, and some even say they violate students’ First Amendment right to free speech. Whether that’s actually true is complicated, though.

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students don’t relinquish their right to free speech at school. But the Court added that schools can limit student expression if it poses a “substantial disruption.” Since then, dress code lawsuits have been tried at the state and local level, but the Supreme Court has never taken one on.

“The Supreme Court’s general feeling is that as much as possible ought to be left up to the school districts and the states on dress code issues,” says Stephen Wermiel, a constitutional law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “The effect of that is to leave a wide array of different rulings.”

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Skills Sheets (5)
Lesson Plan (1)
Leveled Articles (1)