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Can employers discriminate against you for your hairstyle?

Most of us know discrimination in the workplace is wrong and believe we’d know it when we see it. Unfortunately, there are subtle forms of discrimination that can be undetected but are just as damaging for employees.

The California legislature recognizes this possibility and has introduced Senate Bill 188 to update the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The bill aims to add a person’s hairstyle and hair texture to the list of things that cannot be used to determine someone’s employment or housing.

The act currently prohibits discrimination based on “specified personal characteristics,” which include race, religious beliefs, sex and age. SB 188 would expand the characteristics to “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles, and would define protective hairstyles for purposes of these provisions.”

A similar update happened in New York City

The New York City Commission on Human Rights recently passed its own guidelines prohibiting similar discrimination at work, school or other public places. These guidelines provide legal recourse for anyone who is harassed, threatened, punished, demoted or fired for their hairstyle or hair texture. The commission can levy up to $250,000 on defendants in violation and there is no cap on damages.

Discrimination against certain hairstyles and hair textures has historically led to the unfair treatment of black individuals, particularly black women. The guidelines passed in New York City are based on the argument that hair is inherent to one’s race and associated with “racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.”

Discrimination, whether blatant or through microaggressions, is always wrong. Hopefully if this bill passes, California employees will have stronger protections and opportunities for recourse if their hairstyle or hair texture leads to them being treated differently at work.

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