Professional Black women wearing braids has become more of a sight in the past 10 to 20 years. Before then it was shunned as inappropriate, even at HBCU's business schools. Photo credit: Mikelya Fournier

House passes anti-discriminatory hair legislation

In the fight for workplace equity, one half of the U.S.’s bicameral Congress has made it illegal to discriminate based on hair features, a plight particularly affecting Black women.

On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act in a 235 to 189 vote. The law serves to prevent race-centered discrimination based on hair texture or style by extending protection under the FEHA and the California Education Code. Specifically, the bill “prohibits this type of discrimination against those participating in federally assisted programs, housing programs, public accommodations, and employment.”

On the House floor, Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) emphasized. “As a Black woman who loves my braids, I know what it’s like to feel isolated because of how I wear my hair. Rep. Bush also pointed out the multiple times that Black students have been kicked out of school, or denied participating in activities in school. “This is the last time we say ‘no more’ to Black people being demeaned and discriminated against for the same hairstyles that corporations profit from,” said the Black Lives Matter activist-turned-elected official.

The legislation, “ensure[s] that we don’t have a patchwork of protections against this very systemic form of discrimination,” Professor Doris “Wendy” Greene, founder of the #FreeTheHair Movement, an international campaign addressing hair and appearance discrimination in workplaces and schools. said. Greene, who is the legal architect of the CROWN Act and first tenured African American woman in the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law faculty, explained that the bill zeroes in on biases against race-based styles such as “dreadlocks, afros and braids.” 

The CROWN Act movement was created by Esi Eggleston Bracey, Kelli Richardson Lawson, Orlena Nwokah Blanchard, and Adjoa B. Asamoah. Its official CROWN Act Campaign is led by the CROWN Coalition, and funded by a multilateral effort between Dove, the National Urban League, Color Of Change, and Western Center on Law & Poverty. Ironically, DOVE has been criticized for years about its skin lightening creams that proliferate throughout Africa and South Asia.

Named by Los Angeles County Supervisor of the second district Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), the CROWN Act was first introduced as SB188 in late January 2019. In April, then-California Senator Mitchell presented it on the floor. 

Ultimately, it passed with a unanimous bipartisan vote of 37 to 0 in the state. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed and enacted it in June 2019. Notably, the CROWN Act is the first legislation passed at the state level in the U.S. to prohibit such discrimination.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley at conferencing calling for robust and bold housing investments through the Build Back Better Act on October 14, 2021. Photo credit: Office of Representative Ayanna Pressley

To date, fourteen states have passed the CROWN Act into law. The latest to join with their own version of the law being Massachusetts on March 17. The legislation’s co-sponsor Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) expressed pride in the result. She shares the win with her “sisters-in-service” and to those directly impacted by the specific bias.

“I rise today on the floor of the House of Representatives—the people’s House— to declare that Black girls, with …all forms of natural hairstyles and yes, even our smooth Alopecian bald heads, belong everywhere,” expressed Rep. Ayanna Pressley on the House floor. 

“For too long, Black girls have been discriminated against and criminalized for the hair that grows on our heads and the way we move through and show up in this world.”

Indeed, Black women donning their natural hair have prospective job and educational opportunities cut as tighter-curled hairstyles are deemed unprofessional. To further complicate matters, they are judged differently for wearing traditional, cultural hairdos. Or even worse, for sporting their natural hair. Moreso, if applicants do not fit mainstream, Anglicized beauty standards. For generations, the straightened do’s have been favored, according to multiple reports including CNN Business and Frutality

“Hair discrimination is rooted in systemic racism, and its purpose is to preserve white spaces,” the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) explains. “Policies that prohibit natural hairstyles, like afros, braids, bantu knots, and locs, have been used to justify the removal of Black children from classrooms, and Black adults from their employment.”

To add, studies have shown that previous hiring discrimination could include bias dependent on the implied race of a name across a resume header, despite education level or experience. Now, we exist in a technologically advanced age where bigotry is a click or profile picture away. Hence, worsening posed disadvantages to Black women regarding hiring practices. 

For instance, assistant professor of management and lead researcher at Michigan State University Christy Zhou along with her colleague Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a Duke University management professor and a senior associate dean, co-authored a study researching natural hair bias in job recruitment. Dismayed, their findings concluded that Black women indeed face disproportionate disadvantages in the labor market as a result of their hair. 

“In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the corresponding protests, many organizations have rightly focused on tactics to help eradicate racism at systemic and structural levels,” Rosette conveyed. “But our individually held biases often precede the type of racist practices that become embedded and normalized within organizations.”

Black women have disproportionately been handed out reprimands concerning their hair. Photo credit: Glen Anthony on Unsplash

Named the most educated minority group in the U.S., Black women are less likely to get job interviews as compared to White women or Black women with straightened hair. Moreover, a 2019 CROWN research study on workplace-hair discrimination by Dove found that 80 percent of Black women surveyed agreed that they had to alter their natural hair to work. 

As well, Black women are 30 percent more likely to be made aware of a formal policy regarding their appearance; 80 percent of those surveyed have received said reminder. Such policy is mostly given to them during the orientation or interview stage. They also state that Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home because of their hair. 

. . . .

As seen in various domestic instances involving students and professionals in Texas to Louisiana and even abroad, Black women have long had to fight back reprimands because of the way their hair grows out of their head or how they choose to style it. Especially as most argue that said styles comfortably fall under acceptable standards. 

In the name of protecting basic human rights, many see the measure as a significant step forward. One that could help in the fight towards dismantling systemic racism. “For those sisters and thousands of other students who face discrimination based on their hair, the CROWN Act is for you. For recent graduates who fear they must change their hair or cut their locs to secure a job, the CROWN Act is for you. For our elders who have faced and fought this racism for generations, the CROWN Act is for you,” asserted Rep. Pressley.

At this point, the act must stand up to the other half of Congress and the president. As evidenced by his commitment to diversity, it is highly likely that President Biden will sign the legislation into law. Until then, next stop–the Senate is reviewing the legislation on March 22.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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