As part of my “Public Health Law” class, I explored the discrimination many individuals face because of their hair, as well as some important legislation prohibiting such discrimination. I hope for more widespread legislation, and that Black women will no longer be asked or pressured to change their natural hair.
December 14, 2021
By Candace Laster ’19, ’21 MPH
The term “hair discrimination” refers to unjust social and economic treatment given to a marginalized culture because of their hair. In the United States, Black Americans, and other minorities with textured natural hair, without straightening or chemically changing, are often subject to hair discrimination in public spaces. There has been widespread stigma attached to afro-textured hair as being unprofessional, unattractive, and unclean.
There is a long-standing belief that straight hair is neat, clean, and professional. This practice is a form of social injustice that can be observed worldwide. There is discrimination in today's workplaces, schools, and institutions when people show negative bias against hairstyles (i.e., braids, dreadlocks, twist, afros, kinks, curls etc.) or opt for Euro-centric, white hairstyles and textures.
Similar to other policies such as dress codes and tattoo and piercing restrictions, employers have implemented hair policies to ensure that their employees present a clean and professional image that the organization values. The problem arises when these policies do not apply equally to all workers. Discrimination based on hair style can be devastating on an individual level, resulting in disaffection, alienation, and loss of opportunities.
In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom joined Senator Holly J. Mitchell in signing the California State Senate Bill 188 later known as the CROWN Act, making headlines for outlawing racial discrimination based on one's natural hairstyle. It updates the definition of “race” in the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Education Code to be “inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”
‘There is a lot that needs to be done’
The California CROWN Act ensures that employers and schools follow policies that disproportionately impact people of color. California’s CROWN Act made it the first state to ban discrimination based on one’s natural hair, becoming effective January 1, 2020.
The CROWN Act stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” For the first time in the United States, discrimination against natural hair became prohibited at the state level. The authors of this new law argue that women with frizzy and curly hair are sometimes treated unequally and may even be considered inferior. Statistics show that women of color are 80 percent more likely to alter their natural textured hair to conform to social norms and expectations. Their hairstyles put them at 1.5 times greater risk of getting sent home from work.
Black women have reported that “hair isn't just hair. Our hair is our crown, and the celebration of it, as such, is deeply woven into our ancestral history.” While not all states have passed this law, enforcement of the CROWN Act will require employers and schools to take a close look at their policies regarding facial grooming and appearance, as well as their disparate impact on African Americans and other minorities.
Twelve states across the United States have passed legislation banning race-based hair discrimination. Those states are New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Nebraska. In September 2020, the CROWN Act was passed in the United States House of Representatives, but never in the Senate, blocking the possibility of a federal law. The bill, which was reintroduced in Congress in March 2021, said that if a person's hair texture or hairstyle is associated with a particular race or ethnicity, then it is unlawful to discriminate against that person.
The bill prohibits this form of discrimination against persons who participate in federally assisted programs, housing programs, public accommodations, and employment. The law prohibits discrimination based on hair texture or style and describes enforcement procedures relevant to the bill. It also gives individuals equal rights under the law. In addition to addressing racism in the United States, the CROWN Act also addresses deficiencies in previous anti-discrimination laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination against races, but not against afros.
The bans in 12 states will undoubtedly help to protect and enhance all aspects of natural hair presentation in the workplace and in school systems. Vernon François, a celebrity hair stylist with experience styling textured hair, expressed, "This is a positive step in the right direction, but we should not become complacent with this act. There is a lot that needs to be done."
‘Identity development plays a significant role’
Rather than pat ourselves on the back, François shared that “we all still need to take a hard look at the nuances around discrimination. We need to enlighten those who may not be familiar with how liberating it is to be free of someone else's ideas on how they should be wearing their hair. We need to enlighten those who may not be familiar with how liberating it is to be free of someone else's ideas on how they should be wearing their hair.”
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed legislation on March 10, 2021, to advance civil rights by banning discrimination based on hairstyles associated with people of color. Governor Lamont reports “discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, but we all know there are invisible moments and instances of discrimination that take place each and every day. When a Black man or woman shows up for a job interview or to work, they should never be judged based on their hairstyle. Their work product, commitment, dedication, and work ethic should be the sources of their success. This measure is critical to helping build a more equitable society, and I urge the Senate to pass this bill so I can put my signature on it, and we can get this law into our statute books.”
“Black hair is beautiful. Black hair is cultural. Black hair is symbolic. Black hair belongs.”Candace Laster ’19, ’21 MPH
Vannessa Dorantes, the first Black commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, submitted comments supporting Governor Lamont and his decision to sign legislation, stating that in the absence of firsthand knowledge, it may be difficult for one to relate to the significance and importance of such legislation. Ms. Dorantes shed light on implicit bias associated with hair discrimination by stating an overt form of racism is the suppression of a person's rights by establishing standards which directly contradict the person's culture and ethnicity. As the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families Ms. Dorantes acknowledged the effects that implicit bias has on the young people that she serves. In the child and adolescent life stages, identity development plays a significant role.
‘It is my hope that one day Black women will stop being asked to Europeanize their natural hair’
Black children are often ostracized, bullied, disciplined unjustly, or compelled to acquiesce and assimilate to school policies that exclude hairstyles associated with natural hair. Such discriminatory practices usually result in feelings of humiliation, sadness, anger, and frustration for the child who is subjected to them.
White people have pressured Black parents to conform, and they turned to the suppression of natural hairstyles to protect their children. A high schooler in New Jersey by the name of Andrew Johnson was told by a white referee that he would either have to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a wresting match. The teen sheared off his dreadlocks instead of forfeiting the match. New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy commented on the incident stating that he was “deeply disturbed” and that “No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity and playing sports.” News outlets reported that the community felt as though this incident was another example of racial bias manifesting over seemingly personal issues such as hairstyles.
Personally, I can recall struggling to feel accepted amongst peers and teachers as a child when my mom styled my natural hair. I begged my mom to get a perm when I experienced racism by a teacher in middle school. My art teacher asked for the entire class to draw one another and pointed me out and said to the students to make sure they “draw my messy big hair.”
Eventually my mom agreed to let me get a perm as she noticed that I was struggling with feelings of sadness because of my natural hair. Every six weeks my hairdresser would apply a chemical called perm which had a horrible smell and burning sensation when applied to my scalp. I thought to myself how racism robbed me of the joy of imperfection. At the time I felt that the “perfect” look was one with bone-straight hair.
Looking back, I wish I would’ve never chemically altered my hair as it became very damaged. I am so thankful that Black women do not have to hide under the guise of acceptability. It is my hope that one day Black women will stop being asked to Europeanize their natural hair as it completely disrespects their African culture.
‘Black hair belongs’
There is no denying that Black women are vulnerable to the effects of the European standard of beauty which is one that emphasizes skin color, body image and hair types. Natural Black hair discrimination in society is a civil rights issue. Nobody should be judged or categorized as “less than” because of features that do not fit typical standards. The issue of Anti-Black hair has filled the courthouses in the United States for decades, with rulings on both sides of the debate.
Thankfully, after more than 40 years the CROWN Act has passed by some states. I think there needs to be more laws enacted across the board in all 50 states. As Governor Lamont shared, hair has nothing to do with competency, work ethic/performance, or qualifications and should not be a determining factor on whether or not Black individuals are afforded employment opportunities or the chance to share the same spaces as their counterparts.
“Black hair is beautiful. Black hair is cultural. Black hair is symbolic. Black hair belongs.”
Candace Laster ’19, ’21 MPH is a candidate in the Master of Public Health program at the University of New Haven. She wrote this as part of her “Public Health Law” class.