Nearly half of state legislatures will consider bills in the near future to protect a person’s right to wear hair in natural styles.
The bills — introduced in 24 states — are modeled after a California law passed last summer, and put into effect Jan. 1, that bans discrimination based on hairstyle.
Proponents say that employers, and even schools districts, often ban hairstyles historically worn by racial minorities — like braids, dreadlocks and twists.
“Our hairstyles influence the way employers and teachers treat us,” said Courtney McKinney, a spokeswoman for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which advocated for the California law along with several other organizations.
“It can impact your education and your ability to get a job. That’s why we need laws to protect our right to wear our hair the way it grows out of our heads,” McKinney said.
Hair discrimination against blacks has a long history in the United States, the proponents say.
Before the Civil War, enslaved people from Africa, for whom long hair was culturally important, were forced to shave their heads, said state Rep. LaKeshia Myers, a Wisconsin Democrat who introduced legislation to protect hairstyles in her state.
After the Civil War, newly freed black women began to straighten their hair to wear it in styles popular among white women of the time. That tradition continues to this day, Myers said. Across the country, for example, black women use chemicals and heat to “relax” and straighten their hair to blend in at schools and workplaces.
“It’s all for African Americans to fit into the workplace,” Myers said. “Today, an African American trying to get a job is faced with the dilemma of do I straighten my hair for the interview to get the job? Why is my natural hair not considered professional?”
Black men are not immune, Myers noted. In December 2018 in New Jersey, a black high school wrestler was forced by a referee to cut his dreadlocks to compete. And this year, a school district in Texas attempted to expel a black student who refused to cut his dreadlocks.
“No child should be stopped from learning because of their hair,” said Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, the campaign director for Color of Change, an online racial justice organization.
The push to pass such legislation is being spearheaded by a group called the CROWN Coalition, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair.
Color of Change is a CROWN Coalition founding member, Ogunnaike said. Other founders are are Dove, the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the National Urban League.
The coalition, which formed about two years ago, chose to begin in California. Its members are
“What happens in California can easily spread across the country,” said Leah Barros, a lobbyist hired by the CROWN Coalition to advocate for the bill’s passage in California.
“It was passed in California with zero ‘no’ votes and bipartisan support. That was really important to set the foundation for this law to spread to other state legislatures,” Barros said.
Since California, New York and New Jersey have passed similar laws. And the coalition continues to push for action in other states and in Congress.
“Hopefully, we will soon have federal legislation,” Ogunnaike said.
The coalition is working with several federal lawmakers, including U.S, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who unveiled in December a bill to ban discrimination based on hair textures and hairstyles commonly associated with people of a particular race or national origin.