Under current Wisconsin law, discrimination based on race is prohibited, but, the state doesn’t have any laws that protect a person’s hairstyle.
Now, Representative LaKeshia Myers of Milwaukee has authored a bill in the State Assembly that would outlaw discrimination based on hair in areas of employment, housing, education, and more.
“When you think about how hair has been used, it can be a tool of control in the workplace,” Myers says.
Federal law protects Afros against discrimination, but does not apply to other hairstyles and “traits historically associated with race,” such as braids, locs, and twists.
“That [protection] was done in 1976, so you’re talking roughly 43, 44 years ago, and time has most definitely changed. Social mores have changed [and] understanding what is professional has evolved over that time,” Myers notes.
During yesterday’s public hearing, several questions were raised about what exactly this legislation would mean for employers.
“Individuals wanted to know, does this mean [they] have to let in green hair or pink hair? No, because that’s not a natural hair color,” Myers clarifies.
“Banning gray hair would be discriminatory, because that’s something that you cannot help. As you age, your hair may gray, so saying your business has a policy against gray hair would be illogical. So, to penalize someone for how their hair is growing directly from their scalp is ridiculous, and I think everyone was able to understand and see that.”
According to Myers, this legislation will also protect an increasingly diverse workforce in Wisconsin.
“African American women especially have gone through tremendous burdens when it comes to conforming to a corporate standard, or what is seen to be professional,” she says.
“So, I think [this] is something that’s going to help our state as we continue to attract and retain people from all over the country and internationally, as well as looking individuals that are [a part of] ethnic minorities. As we know, that’s one of the growing populations in the state, so I think this is something we have to be proactive about and not wait until it becomes an issue.”
Myers also says that this legislation doesn’t fundamentally change state law, but rather expands its scope.
“I think hair discrimination is one of the last vestiges of discrimination that can be blatant and that can still exist, because this can be written into policy. So, I think this something that will be a learning experience for business owners and for the general public,” Myers says.
The proposed bill received a public hearing yesterday, while its companion in the Senate is currently sitting in committee.