Rochester's Roots: Efforts to fight hair discrimination

February 22, 2019 06:01 AM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) -- Historically African American hair has been the center of controversy. Whether worn as an afro, braids or dreadlocks, African Americans have faced what they say is discrimination in the workplace.

There have been instances of children kicked out of school, and people fired from their jobs all because of the way their hair grows naturally. Today, there are people working to eliminate hair discrimination once and for all.


Jessica Lewis is a communications specialist at The Children's Agenda in Rochester. Her kinky, curly hair is a part of her every day look.

"My hair is part of my identity,” Lewis said. “It's part of my culture and it's something to be celebrated. “

She often wears braids, twists and other styles too, all of which her employer embraces.

“This organization has really embraced diversity and inclusivity, which is important to me,” Lewis said. “With that comes accepting me as an African American woman who chooses to wear my hair natural.”

Employees at other businesses have had other experiences.

Toni Coleman is a hairstylist at Sorellas & Co. Salon in Pittsford. She said that she often hears clients say they are worried their hair is impacting their jobs.

“A bunch of clients have come to me and thought about transitioning to embracing what their natural curl pattern is, and they have voiced concerns about the workplace and how it would be accepted,” Coleman said.

Since the early 1980s, black women across the country have filed lawsuits against their employers, alleging discrimination for wearing certain hairstyles.

In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled businesses can legally fire employees or eliminate job applicants simply for having dreadlocks.

This form of discrimination is even hitting children.

In Texas, a nine-year-old girl wearing a faux hawk was pulled out of class. School leaders said that her hairstyle was unacceptable and against the dress code.

“There used to be a stigma considering kinky hair, nappy hair as being unprofessional," Coleman said.

Earlier this week, the New York City Commission on Human Rights released new guidelines making hair discrimination illegal.

Violators can face a $250,000 fine. This is the first legislation of its kind in the country. The change came after commissioners saw clinical psychologist Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward's film “Back to Natural.”

“The commission has been dealing with these issues, but really reflected to me that the film helped put these issues in a different light, and they responded," Scott-Ward said.

Scott-Ward's self-funded film has been screened across the world, but she said that her work is far from over.

“Even though now we're saying in New York City that you can't discriminate against people based on their hair, that doesn't mean people aren't going to still respond negatively on an unconscious level," she said.

Scott-Ward and Lewis both would like to see protection and changes on a federal level.

"I guess that's something that we have to do, and definitely it should be at a federal level so that the highest court can uphold that legislation,” Lewis said.

Guidelines by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission inform businesses that treating someone unfairly based on hair texture is considered discrimination, even if there are no federal laws preventing it.


Kaci Jones

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