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Suffolk lawmakers vote to ban discrimination based on hair style, religious attire

Amani Hosein spoke in favor of a proposal

Amani Hosein spoke in favor of a proposal to ban discrimination for hairstyles and religious garments. Credit: Courtesy Amani Hosein

The Suffolk County Legislature voted unanimously Tuesday to ban discrimination against hairstyles and religious attire in an effort to limit bias in the workplace.

The measure would expand the county’s human rights law to provide protections for natural hair texture, religious clothing and hairstyles such as braids, twists and locks. The measure would codify existing state law and provide for enforcement by the county Human Rights Commission, officials said.    

Legis. Jason Richberg, who proposed the bill, said the legislation aims to limit bias many blacks and non-Christians face for their appearance and reduce pressure many may feel to straighten their hair, trim beards or remove hijabs for work.

“People shouldn’t have to compromise who they are to get a job or a house or an internship,” said Richberg (D-West Babylon), one of two black Suffolk County legislators.

Supporters said they hoped the measure would raise awareness about such discrimination, which they said can cost people work opportunities and make them spend significant amounts of money to change their appearance.

Backers noted the county proposal, which follows similar legislation enacted around the country, comes as protesters around the nation call for an end to systemic racism. 

Deborah Payton-Jones, who works at Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, said discrimination against black women based on hair styles, even when they are the same as those of white women, will continue without laws to curb it.

“The message that this [bill] sends is that we hear you, we see you, we value you,” said Payton-Jones, 59, from Babylon Village.

Andrea Payne, who is African-American and works at a law firm, said she straightened her hair for years, at a cost of about $750 annually, to conform to notions it looked more professional than her natural hair.

Payne said when she wore her hair braided in a previous job, white colleagues asked to touch her hair and inquired how she washed it, implying it wasn’t clean. When health problems caused her to return to her natural hair a few years ago, she worried she would face repercussions at her current job, although that didn't happen.

“As a taxpayer, I want to know my neighbors and I have the same opportunity to be our authentic selves,” said Payne, 45, of Wheatley Heights.

Amani Hosein, 20, of Selden, said her hijab is a "significant part of my identity." But other Muslim women have confided in her that colleagues had discouraged them from wearing the head covering at work, saying it would hurt business.

Hosein, director of government affairs for the Long Island Builders Institute, said she hoped the county legislation will make it clear that such comments are unacceptable.

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