If men could be fired for being bald, we can be sure that state legislatures across the land would have long ago banned such discrimination.
So it is good, after Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of similar legislation a year ago, that Nebraska appears to be solidly on track to prohibit workplace discrimination based on a person’s natural hair characteristics — a step that will protect primarily Black people. Black women in particular have taken dramatic steps to straighten their hair to conform with dominant White cultural expectations of appearance.
Omaha’s Ashlei Spivey, a program officer at the Kauffman Foundation and founder of the advocacy group I Be Black Girl, last year told lawmakers that after she stopped chemically straightening her hair and let it grow out naturally curly and kinky, she lost a previous job.
Her employer asked, “When are you going to get your other hair back?” she said.
Other Black people have been told they aren’t “clean cut” if they wear natural curls or adopt styles such as braids or twists. Spivey said she was also told that it was “intimidating” when she wore her hair that way.
After his veto, Ricketts promised to work with supporters of the bill to clear his concerns about restricting employers’ ability to ensure workplace safety. Freshman State Sen. Terrell McKinney and the governor — who share common ground as bald guys — are said to have reached agreement, and the bill advanced 38-0 on first reading.
For folks who struggle with the concept of White privilege, the risk of losing a job or being denied opportunity because of the nature of one’s hair is a lesser example of the obstacles people of color face in daily life that never stand in the way of Whites. Legal protections against these barriers show respect for all Nebraskans. Such steps, one at a time, help show Nebraska as a place where a diversity of residents is welcome and can thrive.
The United States and every individual state are inexorably becoming more diverse, but we also are a country still struggling with symbols and sayings rooted in our history of slavery, where children were long taught that Whites conquered the Natives. A growing number of our neighbors, classmates and colleagues are held back and hurt by unconscious bias and many White people’s expectation that others adhere to predominant norms of appearance and speech.
Breaking away from this is critical to our cultural and economic health. “Diversity and inclusion is not an option, it’s not something nice — it’s fundamental to the economic development of our state,” as Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, put it last year.
It’s not a person’s appearance or dialect that determines their value as a citizen, worker or friend, and this seemingly simple hair bill is a recognition of that.
A similar gesture, more subtle and with less direct impact, came in the naming of South Omaha’s new high school, which will be called Buena Vista. The use of Spanish is a nod to the Latino population in the area and marks another inch in our growth.
Now if the Legislature would affirm that the state supports job protections for gay and transgender people, which the U.S. Supreme Court last summer ruled is the law of the land, we could further show that Nebraska is a welcoming state.