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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

July 10, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

National Recap: States look to revise anti-discrimination laws

In Kansas and Wisconsin, legislative committees are holding hearings to revise anti-discrimination laws regarding hairstyles in the workplace. The five legislators who brought the issue forward argue that their lives both in and outside the workplace have been dictated by the expectation that white hairstyles are the only acceptable hairstyles for professional settings. 

One of the legislators, Wisconsin Rep. LaKeshia Myers, stated at an Assembly Constitution and Ethics Committee hearing, “Imagine waking up every morning knowing you’ve got to go to work and can’t be yourself.” Myers, a Democrat from Milwaukee, is the chief sponsor of the bill in Wisconsin. 

Kansas and Wisconsin are not the only states that have stepped forward to revise their states’ anti-discrimination laws. New Jersey, California and New York have all passed their own versions of this law in the past year. These measures have been introduced to 20 other states, including Wisconsin and Kansas, but it is not quite clear how far the bills will get. The ban calls for the termination of biases based on hairstyles “historically associated with race,” and supporters were faced with questions pertaining to how these bans will be interpreted on a broad scale. 

Those opposed to the bill worry that implementing this ban will open a “Pandora’s box”, as Republican Wisconsin Rep. Chuck Wichgers described it, in which anyone can accuse an employer of discrimination. “How do we explain to other legislators that if you have dreads, you can sue to get what you wanted?”

Kristi Brown, Kansas Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, expressed anxiety that legislation like this could have effects on an employer’s ability to enforce basic organizational rules on their workers, like dress code, behavior and safety standards. 

Supporters argued that the issue is not being brought forward to try to manipulate employers and trick them into lawsuits and labor crimes. Instead, the goal is to ensure equal treatment of employees regardless of how they choose to style their hair. Michele Watley, founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, an organization that advocates for black women in Kansas City, Kansas, said, “I don’t know any black woman that has not experienced getting relaxer and not having her hair burned or the scabs on your scalp and having to put creams on your scalp to heal the scabs that you may get from a chemical burn.” 

Watley, along with other individuals in support of the bill, argues that having to straighten, relax and burn hair in order to fit in at school or get a job has been something that black men and women in the U.S. have struggled with for years.

In response to employers who fear accusations of discrimination because of the implementation of this ban, Watley argues that anti-bias laws like this still allow for employers to enforce safety and health requirements, like shortening hair to keep it away from machinery.