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It’s not about hair

A woman with an afro using her computer. (Photo: CynthiaAquino, via Shutterstock)

State Sen. Holly Mitchell was appalled. Video of New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson having his dreadlocks chopped off as a condition of competing in a match was spreading around the country.

Johnson had competed in a previous tournament without incident, but was now being told by a white referee with a previous history of making racist comments to a black colleague that his hair was “unnatural,” and he could either cut it off or forfeit the match. Johnson chose the former.

Mitchell, now a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, knew Johnson’s situation was hardly unique.

According to a study conducted by the Dove soap company, Black women are 30 percent more likely to be made aware of formal workplace policies around hair, 80 percent more likely to change their natural hair under societal or workplace duress and one and half times more likely to be sent home because of their hair than non-Black colleagues.

At least 10 more states and dozens of major municipalities across the country have adopted their own versions of the law.

With that in mind, Mitchell was already working on legislation to bar employers and schools from discriminating on the basis of race- or culturally-based hairstyles. But the video not only made her furious, it made her that much more resolute about doing something about it. Better still, it caught the attention of a very powerful ally – Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Mitchell says she had previously talked up her bill to Newsom, telling him California would be the first state to enact such a law. He was intrigued, but not overly committal. And then the video went viral.

“The next time I saw him he said he had just seen the video of the New Jersey wrestler,” she says. “He said it hit him that that was what I was talking about. This was only a few weeks before we were ready to release the language of our bill, so it was like the stars had aligned.”

That they did.

Her bill (SB 188), known as the “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” or CROWN Act, specifically cites the risk of discrimination faced by those who wear hairstyles commonly associated with the Black community, including afros, afro puffs, Bantu knots, braids, cornrows, locs, twists, headwraps and wigs, and bars “employers and schools from enforcing purportedly ‘race neutral’ grooming policies that disproportionately impact persons of color.”

Newsom signed it into law in July 2019.

Since then, spurred on by a national coalition of organizations like Dove, the National Urban League and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, at least 10 more states and dozens of major municipalities across the country have adopted their own versions of the law. Many of those measures have passed unanimously, and similar bills have been introduced in many more.

Some lawmakers who introduced these measures have also met unanimity in that both sides of the aisle have refused to take it seriously.

One of those came in Delaware, where Sen. Darius Brown sponsored a bill that passed unanimously in February. Brown  cited the statistics from the Dove report, but says he also was moved to carry the bill in honor of both family and friends who he says often have felt forced to alter their preferred hair styles.

“For many friends and colleagues in professional settings there has often been unarticulated expectations around presentation and conduct of culture around natural hair,” he says. “I saw too many African-American women changing and augmenting their appearance to gain acceptance.”

Brown says the key to the bill’s success in Delaware was that advocates were able to build a broad coalition of support – rural and urban, Republican and Democrat, male and female.

“We had that representation, not just across racial lines but also across geographic ones,” he says. “That allowed my colleagues to hear from their constituents and not just from me.”

Not that it has been all smooth sailing. Bills have also failed in at least eight states. Some lawmakers who introduced these measures have also met unanimity in that both sides of the aisle have refused to take it seriously. In Michigan, Democratic state Rep. Sarah Anthony told the PBS Newshour that she was laughed at by members of both parties when she introduced a version of the Crown Act there in 2019. It died in committee, but she reintroduced it this February.

“People say ‘Oh, it’s just hair,’ but it’s so much more than that. It’s about discrimination and about decriminalizing black people and our hair.” — Holly Mitchell

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vetoed a bill that passed there last August, citing concerns that it was essentially singling out Black people for favorable treatment and demanding it “add protections for employees based upon their immutable hair texture and…add protections for employers centered on health and safety standards.”

That last part draws an eye roll from Mitchell, who says “invoking health standards in this issue is ridiculous.”

Nonetheless, Nebraska state Sen. Terrell McKinney reintroduced the bill this spring with language to address the governor’s concerns, and Ricketts signed the measure into law in April.

Mitchell says she also has heard opponents – and even some supporters – question whether, with all the other major problems confronting lawmakers, this is an issue large enough command so much of their attention.

“The idea that we have to have a conversation about how I choose to wear my hair as a grown woman in the workplace will forever create a slight cloud over it all.” — Holly Mitchell

“People say ‘Oh, it’s just hair,’ but it’s so much more than that. It’s about discrimination and about decriminalizing black people and our hair,” she says.

The “it’s just hair” manta also perplexes Courtney McKinney, communications director for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

“For so long in this country black people have been told that how we exist naturally and care for ourselves in order to work or to get an education or to just be is unacceptable. And the psychological damage from that is so profound and so beyond just hair,” she says.

Mitchell says she is proud of the fact her bill is making headway in so many states, but with a caveat.

“It is encouraging to see it doing well,” she says. “But that is couched in the context that I had to introduce the bill in the first damned place. The idea that we have to have a conversation about how I choose to wear my hair as a grown woman in the workplace will forever create a slight cloud over it all.”

Western Center’s McKinney also lauds the CROWN Act’s spread, but says it is just one step in a larger movement aimed at creating a more equitable society.

“With the new emphasis on racial justice, people are looking for ways to implement social justice policies that will actually bring us into equilibrium,” she says. “This is important because it acknowledges that there was a problem. So it is a positive step, and it’s really heartening to see so many states take this on in that wave, but what we need is for California to be a continuing generator of waves. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back and think we’re good.”

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