Legislative protections promote city inclusivity

STATE AFFAIRS: Explicit legal bans on discrimination help normalize self-expression

People wearing different headwear
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

Sometimes people need a codified nudge — or many — to be decent human beings.

And that’s precisely what legislation such as the city’s ban on discrimination based on religious headwear is: It is a nudge toward normalizing self-expression in public spaces, which, in turn, contributes to a more inclusive environment. 

Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson recently introduced a proposal to ban discrimination based on religious headwear and natural hairstyles in employment, housing and other public spaces. The idea’s been tossed around throughout the country — California officially banned hairstyle discrimination July 3, and New York followed suit a few days later — but this is the first piece of legislation that explicitly mentions religious headwear. 

This proposal is a huge step forward. People of different faiths and backgrounds find themselves “othered” by prohibitive policies — headlines in December drew attention to a high school student-athlete in New Jersey whose dreadlocks were cut during a tournament. Such alienation can create a ripple effect of stigmatization that stretches nationwide. This country is an amalgamation of different cultures, and everyone should feel free to express themselves in whatever ways make them feel comfortable. 

Some groups and organizations do require their members to adhere to a dress code or participate in certain activities, sometimes under the pretense of safety concerns. But even if they’re not directly discriminatory, rules that prohibit people from covering their heads or faces prevent those folks from participating in aspects of everyday life. As a community, we have to grapple with the idea of furthering a brand versus ensuring that opportunities are accessible to everyone. 

Back when the city of Berkeley formally adopted its gender-neutral language policy — another initiative led by Robinson — it was met with backlash, mostly from people who couldn’t fathom why the city would “waste” its time on something as minor as terminology. The policy, however, threw a much-needed spotlight on nonbinary gender inclusivity and began a conversation about what that means in society, effectively increasing public awareness about the issue. 

As City Council looks at this proposal, it’s essential that the council members use specific language to define protections for religious garb in public. Additionally, it’s time that companies and other public entities start to consider ways in which they might adapt strict dress codes and safety policies to accommodate people from all walks of life. It should be standard practice to provide dress code alternatives for employees who wear religious headwear or prefer to wear their natural hair, and safety guidelines should be written with a range of appearances in mind. 

In a perfect world, people would just naturally accept inclusive policies. The reality, though, is that sometimes social progress requires explicit codification in law — in other words, legal protection is a tremendous aid in creating a welcoming space for everyone. 

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2019 opinion editor, Revati Thatte.