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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “crown” as “the top or highest point of something.” That definition dovetails perfectly when considering the brand-new legislation, recently signed into law in California, that legally protects K-12 students and persons in workplaces from discrimination based on their natural hair. For hundreds of years now, Black hair as an expression of one’s self has been at the heart of Black identity and consciousness. But also, for countless years, within a myriad of spaces—whether the military, schools, or workplaces—rules and policies have existed that severely limit or outright deny Black people the option of wearing their hair as they so choose. California’s “CROWN” Act, “CROWN” being an acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”, makes California the first state in the United States of America to outlaw discrimination based on hairstyle choice.
The CROWN coalition, led by California State Senator Holly J. Mitchell, is composed of an impressive and diverse array of heavy-hitters, who tirelessly worked in partnership to pass the CROWN Act. The CROWN coalition includes but is not limited to the National Urban League, a historic organization focused on Black rights and equality, as well as Dove; purveyors of hair products and other grooming products owned by Fortune 500 company Unilever. The partnership of such varied groups (state legislators, a Fortune 500 company, and a minority advocacy group) shows just how deep and important the subject matter of hair discrimination is. California State Senator Holly J. Mitchell, when speaking about the historic legislation, stated, “The CROWN Act will prohibit employers and schools from enforcing purportedly race-neutral grooming policies restricting natural hairstyles. Additionally, while anti-discrimination laws presently protect the choice to wear an afro, afros are not the only natural presentation of Black hair. SB 188 (the CROWN Act) ensures protection against discrimination based on hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles.”
Some might express surprise when learning of just how rampant and pervasive hair discrimination still is. Issues around and discriminatory behavior related to the wearing of natural hairstyles exist both within the nebulous world of general discrimination (i.e: offensive comments about hairstyle, employees not receiving promotions or certain assignments based on their hairstyle). And additionally, even in 2019, some workplaces still have explicit workplace policies, within their employee manuals, that prohibit Black, natural hairstyles in the form of afros, braids, and locks. Here’s a pop quiz for you—when did Black women in the United States Army first become able to wear their hair styled in braids or locs? Wait for it—2017. That right—2017.
In 2017, US Army Regulation 670-1, was revised to state that Black women serving in the army would now be able to wear their hair in “dreadlocks/locks”, a style that had previously been explicitly banned within the army’s grooming codes. That such an important and storied organization as the United States Army had previously enforced discriminatory hair practices serves to show just how pervasive discomfort and prejudice is towards Black natural hairstyles. The CROWN Act, within the text of the bill, goes into detail about the history and chronology of discrimination based on natural hairstyle, reading, "The bill points to the history of anti-Black racism in the United States and the role it has played in shaping Eurocentric beauty standards and ideas of what constitutes a professional appearance. Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.”
In 2018, a truly heartbreaking video clip went viral. Andrew Johnson, a Black high school wrestler in New Jersey was at a wrestling match when the referee (who was white) demanded that he make a soul-crushing choice—he could either cut his hair, which was in a natural, locked style, or he would have to forfeit the wrestling match. After making the decision to proceed with the match, which this young man had been practicing and preparing for, a woman comes behind him with scissors and proceeds to cut his individual locs off, one by one, while the audience and other student-wrestlers look on. In direct response to this shocking and videotaped display of overt discrimination, the State of New Jersey recently introduced similar legislation, banning discrimination based on natural hairstyles. Additionally, New York City recently banned discrimination based on natural hairstyles. It is also remarkable that the California CROWN Act, which was recently signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, was unanimously voted for by the California State Assembly.
The passage of California’s CROWN Act struck a chord within me, as I reflected, as a Black woman, upon my own history with hairstyles. Several years ago, I grew out my own hair relaxer, after having had a relaxer in my hair since I was about 12 years old. I have also noticed over the past few years, at my hip Black hair salon on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I rarely see other patrons having hair relaxers applied to their hair anymore. For what it’s worth—whether because of the current absence of hair relaxer in my hair, or the months of prenatal vitamins that I took while pregnant with my second child, my hair is healthier and thicker than I ever remember it being. That my hair is thriving and doing so well has made me ask myself some difficult questions about what the underlying reason was for my decades-long commitment to hair relaxers, prior to stopping my use of them in 2017.
As for many little Black girls, the arrival of summer signals the time for cornrows and braided styles, and our 5-year old daughter is no exception. Braided styles serve as an excellent protectant against hair damage, and make hair management while swimming and engaging in other summer activities a breeze. A few weeks ago, our 5-year old patiently endured a 4-hour hair-braiding session and emerged from it with a head full of gorgeous braids. As she moved her head from side to side, admiring her appearance in the mirror, my mommy pride surged. It is my hope that laws like the CROWN Act, and other similar legislation, will help to ensure that in her future, whether at school or eventually, at work, others will look at her and treat her with the same admiration and respect for her appearance that I feel.
New city and state laws require that employers and organization leaders be constantly cognizant as to the changing national conversation around social mores and discrimination. To this end, employers should constantly be creating and disseminating workplace policies that address these issues. Additionally, it is key that employers, in the instance that an employee does engage in illegal discriminatory behavior, perform a thorough and independent investigation into said behavior, and to swiftly and definitively perform any corrective measures necessary. Triangle offers policy-writing services, and also performs expert-level investigations into allegations of misconduct.