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Baltimore City Considers Natural Hair Discrimination Bill

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

People of color have been barred from jobs and schools for wearing their natural hair for centuries, and legislation across the country — including Baltimore — is just now catching up. Baltimore City Council is considering a bill that would ban hair discrimination throughout the majority-black city.


It’s something that all black women have experienced, covertly or overtly, or have thought about at some point, said Yasmine Young, a Baltimore hairdresser.


At Diaspora Salon, her business in Charles Village, Young exclusively styles natural hair -- what some call afro-textured or tightly coiled hair -- untreated by chemicals.


Before opening her salon, Young worked as a graphic designer at a company where she was the only black employee. There, she wore her natural hair in a twist-out. Her boss claimed it was unprofessional.


“Then came the ‘Your hair’s too wild. It’s making people uncomfortable.’ ” Young said. “I said, ‘‘well maybe this just isn’t a job for me.’ ”


Now, Young wears her hair in an afro and helps other black women embrace and maintain their own natural hair. Every client of hers has a similar story, she said — like the high-profile realtor who landed a promotion but was told she had to ditch her natural hair and wear a weave in order to boost her paychecks.


Other clients of Young’s said while they haven’t experienced overt discrimination, they’ve chosen to forgo certain natural hairstyles in the workplace to avoid situations like the realtor’s.


Jazzmen Watson, a client of Young’s since her salon opened in 2013, said she’s opted for a wig instead of a natural style because of work, like during a job interview a few years ago.


"I wore a wig because I had been natural for a really long time… and I just wasn't sure how that would be received,” she said.


Watson got the job and showed up for her first day without the wig. Her colleagues asked her if she changed her hair.


“I was like, ‘no!’” she said with a laugh. 


Now, Watson said, she’d no longer change her hair for an interview or a job. Still, she noted, she’s aware that employers or colleagues might judge. 


“People take a lot of liberty in the workplace to ask black women about their hair in a way that I have never seen other women have to deal with,” Watson said. 


Destiny Barr, another client of Young’s, said she hasn’t experienced overt workplace hair discrimination but has been hyperaware of how her natural hair might be perceived by employers.


At her old job in finance, she was one of just a few people of color on staff.


“I was always aware that my hair may not be accepted,” Barr said. “I was just conscious of how I did wear my hair.” 


Experiences like these and his own are what led Councilman Robert Stokes, a Democrat who represents central and east Baltimore, to introduce a bill titled Banning Discrimination Based on Hair Texture and Protective Hairstyles


As a senior at Dunbar High School in 1979, Stokes was sitting in homeroom listening to announcements when an administrator delivered a message directed at all students. 


“ ‘If you have braids in your hair, you have to take them out or you have to leave out the school,’ ” he remembered.


If you have braids in your hair, you have to take them out or you have to leave out the school.

A classmate seated next to Stokes took his braids out so he could make it to his next class.

After a slew of viral incidents in which black children across the country were asked to leave spaces on account of their hair, including the black high school wrestler in New Jersey who was forced to cut his dreadlocks to compete in a match, Stokes’ own experience came back to him. 


He did research and saw that California, New York and New Jersey had laws on outlawing discrimination against natural hair. He decided it was time for his city to follow suit.  


Though the Civil Rights Act was passed over 55 years ago, black women have lost cases about natural hair in the workplace. Dr. Terra Bowen-Reid, a psychology professor at Morgan State University, says many have faced pressure to make their hair look less ethnic since slavery was abolished. 


“The straighter your hair was, the more it was related to being more European,” she said. “So this standard of beauty has continued to loom over us in terms of mirroring basically white women hair, from texture to even color.”


Hair relaxers, or what some call perms, a way of straightening tight curls with chemicals like lye and sodium hydroxide, were introduced in the early 1900s. They sold well for decades despite, in some cases, severe chemical burns and side-effects that are still being investigated. 


Recent market research shows black women are moving away from damaging chemical relaxers and towards wigs or weaves. Market research also shows that more money is being spent on natural hair care products. 


Despite this, stories like the New Jersey wrestler’s continue to make headlines — like when Gabrielle Union was reportedly fired by NBC from “America’s Got Talent” for wearing natural hairstyles that were “too black.” 

Credit Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Yasmine Young defines Destiny Barr's curls.

It’s clear that hair discrimination persists in the workplace, Bowen-Reid said. “There may not be publicly in the HR description that you can't wear your hair natural, but they all talk about it should be ‘professionally groomed and neat,’ ” she said. 

There may not be publicly in the HR description that you can't wear your hair natural, but they all talk about it should be 'professionally groomed and neat.'

And covert hair discrimination is not reserved for corporate America. 


“You've literally had little kids kicked out of school because their hair was viewed as untamed. That's ridiculous,” she said. “That's a message that will never get erased.”


These repeated microaggressions weigh on black women, emotionally and psychologically, the professor said.  


Bowen-Reid believes black women will still be subject to covert discrimination if the bill passes, but said the law is necessary.


“The more laws to protect you, the better,” she said. “It does send out a message that I'm not going to tolerate it. And I now have backup to protect me.”


The bill is currently making its way through the city council legislative process. If passed, it would be enacted 30 days after being signed into law.


Credit Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Yasmine Young gives Jazzmen Watson's hair the finishing touches.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.