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A yearslong push to ban hair discrimination is gaining momentum

As a young Black professional, Michigan state Rep. Sarah Anthony said she vividly recalls mentors saying that wearing straightened hair would be better for her career than wearing her natural curls.

Her curly hair would be seen as a “distraction,” or would “make the employer uncomfortable,” Anthony recalls being told by other Black women. Anthony’s experiences with anxiety and fear over the professional impact of her hairstyle are not unique. Though stories of Black people experiencing hair discrimination are not new, in recent years national media attention has brought a new level of scrutiny to the issue.

In 2015, now retired Staff Sgt. Chaunsey Logan faced a possible demotion for violating the Army’s hair policy banning locs. Logan was ultimately able to maintain her position by twisting her locs together, which apparently did not violate the grooming policy. The Army removed its ban on locs in 2017.

That same year, sisters Deanna and Mya Cook, then 15 years old, returned from spring break wearing long braids. Their Massachusetts charter school, which prohibited hair extensions, reportedly removed them from their sports teams and threatened them with expulsion until the state attorney general condemned the school policy.

The long list of similar stories have prompted lawmakers around the country — including Anthony — to introduce legislation aiming to establish legal protections for hair textures and styles tied to racial identity. Versions of this legislation, known as the CROWN Act, have been signed in eight states since 2019 and are gaining attention in other state legislatures.

What is the CROWN Act?

Final legislation can vary slightly from state to state, but most CROWN Act bills forbid discrimination against certain hairstyles and textures within workplaces and schools.

The bill builds off existing state laws, which generally prohibit workplace or school discrimination based on religion, gender, sexual orientation and race. But the CROWN Act expands the definition of “race” to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles,” like braids, locs and twists. These and other styles known as “natural” looks do not involve processing to straighten the hair.

Some bills also seek to end discrimination against adornments related to certain religious and indigenous communities.

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“Our civil rights statutes have been narrowly interpreted by federal courts, among other enforcement bodies, in such a way that it limits racial discrimination to what is known as ‘immutable’ or unchangeable characteristics,” said D. Wendy Greene, a law professor with Drexel University who has played a lead role working with legislators to draft and testify on the CROWN Act. “[The bill] clarifies that natural hair discrimination in all forms constitutes race discrimination.”

In 2019, California became the first state to pass the CROWN Act. Since then, a handful of cities, including New Orleans, Cincinnati and Albuquerque, have passed similar bills, as have New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Colorado, Washington and, this month, Connecticut. Both chambers of the New Mexico legislature have also passed the CROWN Act this year; the bill awaits the governor’s signature.

A federal bill passed the House last year, but died in the Senate. A group of five Black Democratic congresswomen reintroduced the federal bill this month in the House and issued a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris calling for her support. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, re-introduced the legislation in the Senate last week.

Anthony first introduced the CROWN Act in the Michigan legislature in 2019, but after it went to a committee informally known as the “legislative graveyard,” she reintroduced the bill in late February. It is currently awaiting a hearing in the state House Judiciary Committee.

ANNAPOLIS,MD-MAR6: Attendees clap during a press conference at the Maryland House Office Building in Annapolis, Maryland, March 6, 2020, in advance of a legislative hearing scheduled popularly known as the CROWN Act. The CROWN Act would correct inconsistencies in existing anti-discrimination laws by amending Maryland statute to protect against discrimination based on traits associated with race such as hair texture and protective hairstyles. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Why do supporters think the CROWN Act is necessary?

Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum, who introduced a CROWN Act bill in her state legislature this year, said one of the biggest challenges is how little lawmakers know about the issue of hair discrimination.

“People don’t even realize that white dominant culture has been normalized and has been imposed upon people whose hair texture is different,” Bynum said.

Anthony said that when she first introduced CROWN Act legislation in 2019, she was “laughed out” of some rooms and told to focus on “serious” legislation. That criticism came from both sides of the political aisle, she noted.

Among other challenges is that fact that many people don’t understand how prohibiting certain hairstyles could be tied to racial discrimination.

After Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed a hair discrimination bill passed by his state legislature last year, he issued a statement saying, “The bill covers features based on mutable characteristics that are not attributable to one racial group. While hair type is an immutable characteristic, hairstyles can easily be changed. Additionally, the hairstyles named in the bill (locks, braids, and twists) are not exclusively worn by one race.”

But proponents of the legislation say that while the hairstyles mentioned in the bill are not exclusively worn by Black people, these styles have long existing cultural ties to Black communities. Styles like braids or twists also help Black people maintain and protect their natural hair.

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Because Black people’s hair texture is naturally curly or coiled, requiring sleek and straightened hairstyles forces them to cut their hair, wear wigs and hair extensions, or to straighten their hair with chemicals or heated tools like a flat iron, which can damage the hair with excessive use.

Negative associations with natural hair or requirements for Black people to straighten their hair can have negative mental, economic and physiological effects, Greene said.

Chemical straightening products have been linked to problems with hair loss, burns, cancer, miscarriages and infant underdevelopment, according to studies that include data from the National Institutes of Health and researchers with Harvard University’s school of public health. Anthony recounted that her motivation for transitioning to natural hair came around the age of 21 when her doctor warned that the chemicals in her straighteners could be causing her to develop fibroids.

K-12 schools around the country have had dress code policies forbidding styles like afros or locs; violations can result in suspension and other disciplinary action.

To examine work-related bias, one 2019 study found that Black women were 1.5 times more likely than non-Black women to respond that they have been sent home from work in the past because of their hair. A 2020 study asked participants from different backgrounds to assume the role of a job recruiter and to evaluate Black and white female candidates. Researchers found that Black women with natural hairstyles received lower scores on professionalism and competence and were not recommended as frequently for interviews compared with Black women with straightened hair, and white women with curly or straight hair.

Black people responding to a callout from the PBS NewsHour on the issue described a range of treatment as a result of their hair — from bullying and name calling in school to getting a request from a boss or academic superior to change their hairstyle.

Detroit resident Janae Mason said she had some reservations when she first decided to wear her natural curls.

“I had that mindset of, ‘How can I keep [my hair] tamed? … Going to the grocery store, going into banks or anything like that, I always thought, ‘I want to make sure I look presentable so that I’m looked at as something else,’” Mason said. “It’s sad when you really think about it, because I should be able to just live my life and not second guess what I look like before I walk outside.”

Now Mason’s full-time job is creating content focusing on natural hair for her 250,000 YouTube subscribers.

After decades of exclusive beauty and professionalism standards, supporters of the CROWN Act are hopeful that the growing movement to embrace natural hair, in addition to larger conversations about race and identity, will lead to legal protections in more states.

“There may be some momentum given some of the national conversations around race and inequities,” Anthony said. “I think that, you know, legislatures and, really, politicians on both sides of the aisle are looking for ways in a post-2020 America to tackle issues of injustice and discrimination.”