A client gets her hair washed at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Photo: Benjamin Norman/For The New York Times
Photo: Benjamin Norman/For The New York Times

Styling black hair will be taught at salon accused of racial bias

A luxury New York hair salon accused of telling black workers that Afros and box braids did not fit the area’s upscale image will train employees to work with black hair and help advance the careers of stylists who are not white, city officials said Tuesday. 

»PHOTO GALLERY: AJC Sepia Special: Beauty in Dreadlocks

The salon, Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger, agreed to the measures as part of a settlement with New York City’s Human Rights Commission that grew out of an investigation prompted by former employees’ complaints about hair-based racial bias. 

$70,000 fine, community service

The settlement, which also calls for the salon to pay a $70,000 fine, was the first to be reached since the commission’s February release of legal guidelines recognizing discrimination on the basis of hairstyle as racial discrimination. 

“This resolution is another step toward ensuring that racist notions of professional appearance standards are not applied in New York City,” Carmelyn P. Malalis, the commission’s chairwoman, said in a statement. 

The settlement calls for the salon to team up with a New York City styling school with expertise in the care and styling of black hair for two purposes: to instruct and inform current employees and to start an internship program specifically for stylists from underrepresented groups. 

In addition, the commission said, Sharon Dorram, a colorist, and Tim Lehman, a senior stylist, must complete 35 hours of community service with a racial justice group “that works to combat hair discrimination and promote black beauty.” 

Sally Hershberger did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent via her publicist. Dorram and Lehman could not immediately be reached. Steve Tuttleman, whom the commission identified as an owner of the salon with Hershberger and Dorram, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Celebrity salon

The salon, which occupies the top two floors of a townhouse on East 71st Street, is a favorite of celebrities including Meg Ryan and Kate Hudson. Hershberger is known for her $1,000 haircuts and “24K” hair products in gold-trimmed black packaging. Her clients have included Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. Dorram has worked for Christie Brinkley and Renée Zellweger. 

»FROM 2018: Kim Kardashian slammed for crediting white actress with braids

Hershberger also operates salons in New York at Barneys on Madison Avenue, on West 26th Street and at the Hudson Yards complex, and in West Hollywood, California. The settlement reached with the commission applies to all of Hershberger’s New York outlets. 

Hershberger’s Upper East Side salon was among several businesses to be investigated by the commission after employees complained about being discriminated against because of their hair. The investigations led the commission to adopt the new guidelines. A commission spokeswoman said several businesses remain under investigation. 

Former workers complained

In the case of the salon, four former workers filed complaints from 2016 to 2018. The first was from a former general manager who was white and said he was sickened by having to enforce a dress code and hair policy that was applied more strictly to black workers than white ones. 

»MORE: Author celebrates natural black hair in new children’s book

Interviewed for an earlier New York Times article, the former manager, David Speer, said Dorram pushed for the dress code only after he hired three black women — Taren Guy, Raelene Roberts and Regine Aubourg — as receptionists. 

In a text message written by Dorram, one of several Speer shared with The Times, she criticized the receptionists’ appearance. 

“Today looked awful,” she wrote, saying Roberts “had her dreads down” and that Aubourg “just got hers to match as long.” Dorram added: “All 3 at desk and we look like we should be on E. 134th Street.” (Dorram said in February the hair policy was not racially motivated and that her text messages had been mischaracterized.) 

State prohibits hair bias

Believed to be the first of their kind in the United States, the city’s guidelines prohibit the targeting of people based on their hairstyle at work and school and in public places. 

»RELATED: New York human rights law places ban on race discrimination on basis of hair

They specifically cite the right to maintain “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.” 

Since New York City introduced the rules, New York state, New Jersey, California and Montgomery County, Maryland, have adopted similar measures. 

No federal protections

There is no legal precedent in federal court for protection against hair-based racial discrimination. In 2018, the Supreme Court declined to consider a case brought by a black woman who had a job offer from an insurance company rescinded after she would not cut off her dreadlocks. 

»FROM 2018: Black Twitter blasts Barbie for black doll with ‘ratchet’ hairstyle

Last month, a Queens woman invoked the city and state guidelines in a federal lawsuit brought against Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica, Queens. In the suit, the woman, Lavona Batts, accused the school of discriminating against her son, who is black and was starting his first year there, by saying he could not wear his hair in braids. 

The boy, a third grader, was “very proud of his hair,” Batts said in the suit. “He considers his hair to be an important part of his identity and he has no intentions of changing his hairstyle.”

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