Cincinnati City Council Passes Ordinance Banning Discrimination Based on Natural Hair

Cincinnati is just the second city in the country behind New York to pass protections for those with natural hairstyles often associated with minority groups

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

For generations, people of African-American descent — and others with textured hair — have had to make a decision: go natural and face potential discrimination or spend time and money on services and products that change the natural texture of their hair.

Cincinnati City Council has voted to ease that dilemma, at least in this city, by passing an ordinance that adds natural hair and hairstyles to the city's anti-discrimination laws when it comes to employment, housing and other important decisions. 

Council member Chris Seelbach introduced the ordinance earlier this month after hearing stories from his office's community affairs director Kamara Douglas about discrimination she experienced when she went natural. 

"Natural hair types and natural hair styles commonly associated with African-Americans have frequently been the focus of intentional as well as unintended discrimination against those individual based on negative, lingering cultural biases that frequently favor hairstyles and types that mostly resemble white hairstyles and hair types," Seelbach said, reading the ordinance.

Seelbach said those biases can lead to being turned down for jobs and other opportunities. 

"I know what it is like to be treated differently because of a distinction of who you are," Seelbach, Cincinnati's first openly-LGBT council member, said, "and I know those are real circumstances, real events that happen." 

Council voted 7-1 to approve the ordinance, which levies a $100 fine for each violation. Council member Jeff Pastor was absent.

Council member Amy Murray was the sole vote against. She said federal laws prohibiting racial discrimination already offer the protections that Seelbach's ordinance seeks.

"I agree we should not have discrimination of any type," she said. "Hair discrimination is a form of race discrimination, which is prohibited under federal and state laws. It's already on the books that you can't discriminate based on race or color." 

Others, however, took issue with that, saying that case law isn't clear that discrimination against hair type is automatically forbidden by current anti-discrimination laws. 

"Legislation like this is very necessary," council member Tamaya Dennard said. "What's the harm, even if something is already on the books, in us making sure we cover our bases? I respect my colleague a lot, but I do understand that she's limited in this because she doesn't have this lived experience." 

The city's attorney says the ordinance takes away some ambiguity when it comes to what is or isn't covered by anti-discrimination laws. 

"You could probably make a claim based on hair texture or type," Cincinnati City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething said of current laws. "However, it would be a question of proof, and that question would be somewhat easier to prove if there is an actual prohibition against discrimination against hair texture or type." 

Council member Christopher Smitherman said many women he's known have had to struggle with the decision about whether or not to go natural. He said he enthusiastically supports the ordinance. 

"I don't think there is a woman in my life who isn't impacted by the decision of whether or not to wear her hair natural," he said. "Now, as a single father working with my daughter, there is no activity during the week we don't plan around her hair care. That's real." 

Cincinnati is the second city behind New York City to pass such an ordinance. 

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