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Last month, Connecticut became one of a growing number of states to make race-based hair discrimination illegal. Yamiche Alcindor reports on how Black Americans often face discrimination because of the way they wear their hair, especially in school and at work.
Last month, Connecticut became one of a growing number of states to make race-based hair discrimination illegal.
Yamiche Alcindor reports on how Black Americans often face discrimination because of the way they wear their hair, especially in school and at work.
For much of American history, naturally curly black hair has been wrongly seen as unprofessional or even dirty, especially in the workplace.
At Sheldeez Salon in Sterling, Virginia, salon manager Thobe Mak has seen the impact of that discriminatory thinking first-hand. She says many clients openly worry about being judged if they wear their hair naturally curly.
A lot of times, when we talk to our clients who are in the corporate setting, most of the conversations are along the lines of: I'm in a predominantly non-Black environment, so I can't go in looking like my hair is not being taken care of, because there seems to be that assumption or that bias that, if you have natural hair, you're not taking care of it.
Still, many Black women are abandoning wigs, hair extensions, or chemical straighteners used to change their appearance. Instead, they are embracing natural Black styles like afros and braids.
It's an art. It's an art, for sure.
And many Black men, instead of keeping their hair cut short, are growing it longer and getting locs.
For Anwar Taylor, he's hoping it will make a professional statement.
I initially made the decision to grow my hair out of necessity, since all the barbers weren't able to cut our hairs last year.
But then it got to a certain point where I was switching careers, and I wanted to sort of change stereotypes of, like, what does the therapist and what does a Black therapist look like?
But Taylor says he also understands his new hair could make him the potential target of police harassment.
I definitely do have concerns about safety, when it comes to my locs. If you see somebody with dreadlocks or cornrows or, in your mind, what's considered wild hair, you're seen as somebody who is poor, somebody who is potentially dealing drugs or up to no good. You're seen as somebody who is less than.
Others worry about not being accepted or respected at work, like Sonya Miller, whose co-worker only complimented her hair the day she decided to straighten it.
It was hurtful that they felt that my hair being different was better than it would just growing out of my hair — my head, its natural form.
But Miller decided to stick with her natural hair, in part to be an example for her daughter.
When she was younger, she came home, and I had relaxed hair, and she's like: "I don't like my hair."
So, it felt very disingenuous to say, oh, no, you should love your hair, love the hair the way it grows out of your body, and then running my hand through straightened, chemically straightened hair.
Hair-based discrimination is happening in schools, too. In 2018, a referee in New Jersey forced Andrew Johnson, a Black high school student, to cut off his locs before competing in a wrestling match.
And last year in Texas, another Black student, Deandre Arnold, was suspended and told he couldn't walk at his high school graduation because his locs were too long.
D. Wendy Greene:
We do see this elevation, this privileging of straightened hairstyles as good hair.
To protect Americans against this form of discrimination, Drexel University Law Professor Wendy Greene has worked with legislators around the country to create the CROWN Act. It's a law that bans discrimination in workplaces and schools against hair textures or styles linked to racial identity.
It really clarifies that natural hair discrimination, in all forms, constitutes race discrimination.
Our hair has nothing to do with our competencies and our qualifications and our abilities, and, therefore, shouldn't have anything to do with whether or not we're afforded employment opportunities or if we should be included in certain spaces.
In 2019, California became the first state to pass the CROWN Act.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Since then, seven states have followed California's lead, in addition to a handful of cities and counties.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee:
I rise in strong support of H.R.5309.
A federal version of the CROWN Act passed the House of Representatives last fall, but stalled in the Senate.
Greene says part of the challenge is getting others to see the realities of hair discrimination.
What do you say to people who say this is just hair, just like grooming and dress codes; hair discrimination doesn't really exist because you have to have different standards for different parts of our society?
Well, I think individuals who say those types of things really are either uneducated or undereducated as it relates to the longstanding form of racial discrimination flowing from our hair texture, similar to our skin color.
It hearkens back to eras of racial slavery and apartheid in this country, as well as around the world. Just because that may not be your experience doesn't mean that this experience of discrimination is not real.
And that experience is all too real for Brittany Noble.
I was using flatirons on my hair every single day just to have that straight look.
A former television news anchor in Mississippi, Noble started wearing her hair naturally after she became pregnant with her son.
I talked with my news director, of course, and I asked him if it was OK to stop straightening my hair. And he said, yes, that's fine. I started wearing my two-crown braids.
And one day, my boss said, hey, look, the real problem is your hair. It's unprofessional. It was the equivalent of me wearing a baseball cap to go to the grocery store, and that viewers needed to see a beauty queen.
She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
It felt like, not only were you telling me that my hair was unprofessional. You're telling the people in our community, the people that look like me that our hair is unprofessional, that our look is unprofessional. I couldn't vocalize it at the time.
I didn't feel like I could vocalize my feelings at the time. But it certainly hurt.
Noble was fired a month later, and eventually the EEOC said it couldn't determine whether she had been discriminated against. But it didn't absolve the company either, and said Noble could sue.
Last year, Noble sued the station's parent company for race discrimination. Representatives of the company declined to comment on the ongoing case.
Stories like Brittany Noble's are not unique.
January 5, 2017, in the year of our lord 2017, we are now allowed to wear locs in uniform.
Retired Staff Sergeant Chaunsey Logan spent 20 years in the Army. Halfway through her service, she decided to put her hair in locs, because it was easier to maintain.
That style, however, violated the military's grooming policy, which was particularly difficult for Black personnel.
I was ordered to cut my locs, and I refused that order. So I ended up being tried under UCMJ, Uniform Code of Military Justice, was found guilty of refusing that order.
And the punishment was to be reduced in rank and to be separated from the military for refusing to cut my hair. Now, that didn't happen.
What changed? During the trial, she made a minor change to her hairstyle. It allowed Logan to keep her job and rank.
My hair like this was wrong, but doing this, twisting two of them together, this was determined to be within regulation. So, this is what I did all over my hair.
In 2017, the Army removed its ban on locs, but Logan still remembers how the scrutiny made her feel.
That is the worst experience I have had in my 20-year career. I was in the Iraq invasion in 2003, deployment, Afghanistan. We're trained to prepare for war. Nothing could prepare me for this.
But, despite these ongoing fights, people like Chaunsey Logan and Brittany Noble are confident that times are changing, whether in the workplace…
My fight is one of thousands. I feel that we feel seen and heard now. It's taken way too long, but we're here.
… or at home raising a son.
If you want to wear braids, if you want to wear locs, if you want to cut your hair off, you want to wear a huge afro, that's on you. I'm just really proud of the fact that I can teach my son to love his natural hair the way that I love my natural hair.
This cultural acceptance and even celebration of natural hair is changing the conversation about discrimination across America.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.
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Yamiche Alcindor is the White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; the moderator of Washington Week, the weekly public affairs show on PBS; and a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. She often tells stories about the intersection of race and politics as well as fatal police encounters. She is currently covering the administration of President Joe Biden and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rachel Wellford is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour.
Candice Norwood is a former digital politics reporter for the PBS NewsHour.
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