The decriminalization of black hair is something that has existed for centuries. In fact, it’s only been as recent as this year that hair discrimination in the state of California and in New York City have become illegal. It’s still very much allowed everywhere else. While it’s a significant and important move towards equality, it’s also not nearly enough. But a settlement under New York City’s new prohibition against hairstyle discrimination is actually requiring a luxury Upper East Side hair salon accused of telling black workers that Afros and box braids did not fit the area’s upscale image, to train employees to work with black hair, in an effort to combat discriminating behavior. It is about time!
The salon, Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger, was under investigation by NYC earlier this year for racial discrimination due to complaints from former black employees who were told that their hair was deemed inappropriate for work. As a result, the salon agreed to the measures of a settlement which called for them to pay a $70,000 fine along with teaming up “with a New York City styling school with expertise in the care and styling of black hair for two purposes: to instruct and inform current employees and to start an internship program specifically for stylists from underrepresented groups.”
It also requires Sharon Dorram, a colorist and Tim Lehman, a senior stylist at the salon, to complete 35 hours of community service with racial justice groups “that works to combat hair discrimination and promote black beauty.”
Sally Hershberger herself said in a statement that she “had no involvement in the allegations” at issue in the settlement and was “100 percent against racial discrimination.” She stated that she favored a “diverse work environment full of authenticity, integrity, and individuality.” Hershberger added that she is taking all measures to ensure that her views are fully reflected at all salon locations. Ms. Dorrram’s spokeswoman stated that the colorist is “extremely sorry that her actions have caused any person to feel uncomfortable in her salon,” while adding that her policy now was that all employees are “free to wear their hair in any way that they choose and may freely express their unique styles.”
California was the first state to ban racial discrimination against people based on their natural hairstyles. On July 3, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law. “In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second-class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination,” the bill says.
In NYC, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill earlier this year recognizing hair discrimination on the basis of texture and hairstyle as racial discrimination. And while it can apply to anyone, it is especially aimed to end the discrimination and mistreatment of black people.
Being a woman of color myself — Afro-Dominican specifically — with naturally curly hair, I have never felt anything less than anxious sitting in a salon chair at a salon that doesn’t specifically cater to my hair type. My whole life I never trusted a salon that wasn’t the Dominican salon to be able to successfully straighten my curls, leaving it sleek and frizz-free. In fact, the few times I did get my hair blown out at upscale salons — back when I was a beauty reporter — it was not pretty. Even if my hair was blown out properly, there was always a ton of commentary surrounding the fact that my hair was curly and how “difficult it was to manage” and anxiety from the stylists themselves who oftentimes were not even remotely trained to handle textured hair. If this has been my experience as someone with a softer curl pattern and finer texture, I could only imagine the kind of traumatic experiences black women with significantly curlier, coarser and kinkier textures have had to deal with. It just never made sense to me that high-end salons didn’t cater to hair textures that weren’t straight and it made even less sense to me that many of these salons rarely employed enough stylists of color who could do those jobs.
There are a few reasons why for years salons have gotten away with discriminating against and not serving textured hair. One of those reasons goes back to the social conditioning of European beauty not only being the standard but the only kind of beauty that matters. This has been justified for so many years — centuries really — that beauty brands were able to create products that completely excluded non-white women. So, of course, salons were able to do the same. Textured hair wasn’t considered beautiful, sophisticated or ”chic” by any means and for the longest, high-end salons did not want to turn away their wealthy white clientele by having brown and black bodies present in their spaces — this is the truth. Lastly, salon owners perceived textured hair to “not be their problem.” There were black and Dominican hair salons who could cater to us because god forbid we wanted a higher-end salon experience or could actually afford it.
Well, friends, fortunately, times are changing and hair discrimination is a thing. And while fines could be helpful, it’s certainly not enough to drive and lead to real and significant change — understanding culture does. Obligating the Sharon Dorram Salon at Sally Hershberger to team up with a New York City styling school to learn and educate themselves about caring and styling textured hair is crucial in being able to serve black and brown women. Working with a racial justice group to understand how to promote black beauty is not just a step in the right direction but absolutely necessary. How can we expect white-owned salons to be inclusive if they know nothing about brown and black beauty and nothing about our hair? In fact, I hope NYC takes even greater measures towards equality by requiring salons to offer this kind of education to all of their employees while also making it a point to hire more stylists of color who already know how to work with all hair textures.
I would love to live in a day and age where a black woman can walk into a high-end salon and not have to experience the anxiety, the trauma, or the shame many before her have had to experience just because of the texture of their hair. Where she could experience the luxury of confidently knowing there will be a number of stylists at that salon that can confidently style and care for her hair without the unnecessary micro-aggressions and without the added “texture fees.” I would love to witness a world where women and young brown and black girls aren’t fired, turned down from job offers, humiliated, kicked out of school, or even physically abused for how they choose to wear their hair. While this may sound like a Utopia of sorts to some, I am confident that with enough push this could happen. After all, I never thought I’d be alive to witness a ban against natural hair discrimination.