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Racial Discrimination Based on Hair Texture/Style

February 24, 2022
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WRITTEN BY Dr. Brittany Whitley and Dr. Jill Barnas

Executive Summary 

School and workplace policies that regulate hair textures and styles disproportionately affect Black children and adults, and may lead to negative educational, economic and health outcomes. Most federal and state anti-discrimination laws do not explicitly define race to include the physical characteristics historically associated with race, such as hair texture and protective hairstyles (e.g., braids, locks, twists). As a result, there is legal ambiguity as to whether education and employment policies (e.g., dress codes, hiring/firing practices) related to hair textures and styles constitute a form of discrimination based on race. House Bills 1743, 2185, 2373, 2392 and Senate Bill 994 would prohibit educational institutions that receive state financial assistance or enroll students receiving state financial aid from offering programs and activities that discriminate based on hair texture and protective hairstyles. Some of these bills also add a similar definition of race to an existing Missouri statute (RSMo Chapter 213) that prohibits racial discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing. As of 2022, 14 states and several cities, including Kansas City, have passed similar legislation. 

Highlights 

  • Some dress codes prohibit natural hair textures and/or protective hairstyles on the grounds that they are not “neat”, “clean” and/or “professional.” These policies may be considered a form of race-based discrimination because they disproportionately impact non-White individuals, especially Black girls and women.
  • In schools with zero tolerance policies, dress code violations can result in suspension, which reduces in-seat learning time and may contribute to future disciplinary actions. Workplace discrimination based on natural hair textures and protective hairstyles can limit employment opportunities, as well as present and future earnings.
  • Hair- and race-based discrimination has negative physical and mental health consequences.
  • Fourteen states, including Nebraska and Illinois, currently prohibit education and employment discrimination based on hair texture and style. Both Kansas City and St. Louis passed similar ordinances in 2020 and 2021, respectively. 

Limitations 

  • Most hair anti-discrimination laws have been enacted over the last few years, so there is limited information about how these policies directly impact education, employment and health outcomes, especially over the long-term.

This Note has been updated. You can access the previous version (published February 2021) here.

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