By: Jean Silver
Wearing a black leotard with white stockings and pale baby-pink ballet shoes, Kassi Bates stood by the portable barre at the Chicago Academy for the Arts before class started. Bates combed her afro textured hair into a tight bun atop her hair, which was proper protocol to keep the hair out of her face when practicing ballet. Right before the class started to practice ballet warm-ups on the barre, a passive-aggressive comment was thrown her way about having her hair untidy by the head of the dance department and teacher of the class; an older African-American man.
“The rule is that the hair has to be out of your face, and the hair was out of my face,” said Bates, now a student in the Purchase dance conservatory. “But it was deemed too wild and unkempt for ballet class [by ballet master.]”
Hair discrimination is a form of social injustice that targets minorities, specifically black people. It is a universal injustice that deems that curly or African hairstyles are unprofessional and messy. Hair discrimination can be experienced in school settings and in the workplace for young male and female minorities. Although there are federal laws against racial discrimination, there are none to prevent prejudice against hair texture. Without proper laws in place, schools and workplaces can easily argue that certain hairstyles do not coincide with their dress codes.
New guidelines were released by the New York City Commission on Human Rights this month on targeting people on their hair or hairstyle, according to the NYC human rights commission website. The guidelines mentioned that everyone is allowed to maintain natural hair or any hairstyle. If a person is targeted, it will be considered hair discrimination. The city commission will be allowed to enforce policy changes and re-hiring at institutions, as well as sue defendants up to $250,000.
Some students at Purchase know too well about the injustice of hair discrimination. Ashley (Ashes) Romano, a sophomore with short curly dark hair who is majoring in economics, experienced hair discrimination when applying for a job at Macy’s. During a group interview, Ashes recounts being bombarded with questions for wearing their hair naturally curly while the other job candidates with straight hair were not. Although Ashes received a career technical education (CTE) certificate in fashion, they say they still experienced unfair treatment.
“[Hiring managers] came up to me after and were like, ‘oh don’t worry about it, you just gotta clean up a little bit more. You can’t just dress like you’re going to the street,'” said Romano. “Yet I’m wearing a button-up, I’m wearing slacks and nice shoes.”
Romano says they have also faced unfair treatment from customers without getting support from co-workers and managers at Macy's. “They can give you the questioning look, they don’t smile as often, or they start questioning you a lot about what you do,” said Ashes.
Hair discrimination not only causes unjust treatment for minorities but also has a harmful effect on self-esteem and self-identities.
Amalia Vazquez, a Spanish Language and Culture major who graduated from Purchase in May 2018, spent her adolescence feeling insecure about her natural hair.
“I associated Afros, kinks, tight curls, and coils with 'bad hair,' even though I had all of these things,” said Vazquez. “Sometimes my friends would call my hair an Afro and I would vehemently defend myself saying I didn’t have an Afro, but that I had curly hair.”
Even when relaxing her hair, Vazquez was still insecure for the lack of movement. “It was embarrassing how it just stayed there, motionless, probably because it is meant to be bouncy and curly not pin straight!” said Vasquez.
Yared Glicksman, a freshman new media major, says he has experienced bullying for his mop of dark brown, afro-textured hair.
“It was mainly a lot of comments on how my hair must be dirty because I have so much of it and don't wash it every day,” said Glicksman.
The students who have experienced unfair treatment for their hair texture have come a long way in feeling more secure in themselves and identifying themselves with their natural hair. Glicksman’s hair represents both sides of his Ethiopian and Jewish ancestry.
“I keep it natural (no braiding or straightening), so I see my hair as a sign that I am African, and will always be African, instead of confirming my hair to Western ideals,” said Glickman.
Vazquez says she now sees the value and beauty in her own hair: “By seeing more people with different kinds of natural hair, seeing 4c coils [tightly coiled curls] in all their beauty and learning to appreciate every hair type as is, I no longer feel insecure about my hair. I adore it.”