Governor Gavin Newsom has signed into law a bill making California the first state to ban workplace and school discrimination against black people for wearing hairstyles such as braids, twists and locks.

The law by Democratic Senator Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, a black woman who wears her hair in locks, makes California the first state to explicitly say that those hairstyles are associated with race and therefore protected against discrimination in the workplace and in schools.

"We are changing the course of history, hopefully, across this country by acknowledging that what has been defined as professional hair styles and attire in the workplace has historically been based on a Euro-centric model — based on straight hair," Mitchell said.

Stephanie Hunter-Ray, who works at a makeup counter, says she typically wears her hair braided or in an afro, but one day she showed up to work with it straightened and styled in a bob. Her manager told Hunter-Ray her hair had never looked so normal.

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"It bothered me," Hunter-Ray said in an interview at the hair salon she owns in Sacramento that specialises in natural hairstyles.

"What do you mean by 'normal?' Your normal is not my normal. My normal is my 'fro or my braids."

Alikah Hatchett-Fall, who runs Sacred Crowns Salon in Sacramento, said she's had black men come into her salon asking to have their hair cut off because they can't find jobs.

The law, she said, "means that psychologically and mentally people can be at ease and be able to get the jobs they want, keep the jobs they want, and get promoted at the jobs they want".

California's new law, which takes effect on January 1, is significant because federal courts have historically held that hair is a characteristic that can be changed, meaning there's no basis for discrimination complaints based on hairstyle.

The US Supreme Court recently declined to hear the case of an Alabama woman who said she didn't get a job because she refused to change her hair.

The issue burst into public view last December when a black high school wrestler in New Jersey was told by a referee that he had to cut off his dreadlocks if he wanted to compete. Newsom, California's Democratic Governor, said the video was a clear example of the discrimination black Americans face.

"His decision whether or not to lose an athletic competition or lose his identity came into, I think, stark terms for millions of Americans," Newsom said before signing the bill alongside Mitchell and half a dozen advocates. "That is played out in workplaces, it's played out in schools — not just athletic competitions and settings — every single day all across America in ways subtle and overt."

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Though California is the first state with such a law, New York City earlier this year issued legal guidance banning discrimination against someone based on their hairstyle.

- AP