Don’t Touch My Crown: Fighting Black Hair Discrimination in America

I haven’t straightened my hair in years, but growing up it almost felt like a requirement. I grew up under the impression that if my big frizzy, coily hair wasn’t straightened, it wasn’t “done,” or socially presentable. Now that I’m older and wiser I have no problem rocking my natural hair but it wasn’t easy to get here. So many women of African descent share this experience—our hair journeys are as unique as our tresses but one thing is certain, we all had to learn to love our hair in a society that tells us to shun it.

Our hair is an expression of our personalities and a reflection of our history but unfortunately, that expression is often muted by workplaces and school systems that discriminate against Black people who choose to wear their hair in a natural or protective style, like braids, locs, and twists. Black women, especially, face significant socio-economic and societal pressure to straighten or relax their natural hair in order to conform to white and European standards of beauty. Natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black communities are stigmatized and seen as “unprofessional,” “messy,” or “unkempt,” in American society. Fortunately, with a new generation of leaders working to fight racism and discrimination in all its forms, along with movements and legislation working to make significant change—hair discrimination will hopefully be a thing of the past.

THE CROWN ACT

It’s still legal to discriminate based on hairstyles in the majority of U.S. states. The Crown Coalition hopes to change that. The CROWN Coalition is an alliance of organizations, including Dove, National Urban League, Color of Change, and Western Center on Law and Poverty, that is dedicated to the advancement of anti-discrimination legislation. The law, known as the “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” (or CROWN Act), prohibits discrimination based on hair style and hair texture. 

California was the first state to pass the CROWN Act which was signed into law on July 3, 2019.  So far, a total of seven states have passed the CROWN Act to provide legal protections against race-based hair discrimination in workplaces and schools. The CROWN Act is law in CA, NY, NJ, VA, CO, WA, and is in progress in 25 additional states. The CROWN Coalition continues to galvanize support for legislation to end hair discrimination federally and in all 50 states. If you are interested in bringing the CROWN Act to your state, you can sign the petition here.

HAIR DISCRIMINATION: A HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The policing of Black hair has been happening for centuries. Since the beginning of the United States, Black people have endured discrimination and attempts at being controlled through rules or laws concerning their hair. 

In the 1700s, Black women in Louisiana were known to wear their hair in elaborate styles, attracting the attention of white men. In order to diminish “excessive attention to dress” among women of color, Spanish colonial Governor Don Esteban Miró enacted the Tignon Laws, which required Creole women of color to wear a tignon (scarf or handkerchief) to cover their hair as a way to indicate that they belonged to the slave class—despite the fact that some of these women were “free.”

Years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a significant milestone in the fight for equality, as it banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. But this law still left it up to the courts to decide what constitutes racial discrimination. So, when Beverly Jenkins was denied a promotion in the Blue Cross by her white supervisor due to her afro, she filed a racial discrimination lawsuit. In 1976, the landmark federal court case Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance determined that afros were protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the case did not extend protections against hair discrimination.

Despite the progress made as a result of Jenkins’s case, federal courts have persisted in excluding protection against hair discrimination because they consider it to be a characteristic that can be changed. This blatantly disregards the fact that historically and culturally, these hairstyles have been closely connected with Black people—further reiterating the reality that Eurocentric features are what society values. 

HOW HAIR DISCRIMINATION PLAGUES THE U.S.

The past couple of years have seen a significant shift in American society when it comes to re-evaluating the basis for long-standing appearance norms, in light of their discriminatory nature. Take the U.S. Armed Forces, for example. On March 6, 2014, Army Regulation 670-1 was approved, which restricted female soldiers from wearing most natural hair styles including “twists, dreadlocks, afros and braids,” while deployed. But in 2017, after significant backlash, the Army lifted its ban

Despite the progress, hair discrimination is still alive and well in America. There are policy changes that still need to be enacted and a staggering amount of hair discrimination cases that have popped up across the country in the past decade, predominantly in workplaces and in schools.

IN THE WORKPLACE 

Many Black people in the United States face barriers or judgments in the workplace when they display their natural hair. Natural hairstyles have long been the target of deep-seated defamatory stereotypes about Black people and their hair—mainly, that Black hair is unclean, unprofessional, or unkempt. In particular, for Black women who wish to succeed in the workplace, these stereotypes often compel them to undertake costly, time-consuming and harsh measures to conform their hair to the predominant white culture. As the CROWN Act states, “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.”

Take the following cases for example:

  • In 2010, Chastity Jones was offered a position as a customer service representative for Catastrophe Management Solutions. Upon learning that Jones had dreadlocks, a manager told her that she needed to cut off her dreadlocks. She refused and Catastrophe Management Solutions withdrew the job offer. In 2016, The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that this did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination in the workplace.
  • In 2018, Brittany Noble Jones, a former news anchor in Mississippi alleged that her decision to wear a natural hairstyle was a factor in her dismissal. 
  • In 2018, Ariel Mack was fired from her job with LA Fitness because of hair. She was told by her supervisor that her afro was not up to company standards.

Hair discrimination is a persistent and prevalent problem that Black people experience in the workplace. The first step toward change is the awareness that these issues exist. Diversity and inclusion training in the workplace could help raise awareness and perhaps make more people comfortable with natural hair styles at work.

AT SCHOOL

Hair discrimination occurs not only in the workplace, but in schools as well. Many U.S. school districts have very strict hair policies that unequally target Black hairstyles and textures. 

As is evident in the following cases:

  • In 2017, Mya and Deana Cook, twin sisters in Massachusetts, had to serve detention when school officials determined that their braids violated school policy.
  • In August 2018, Clinton Stanley Jr., a 6-year-old student at Book’s Christian Academy in Florida, was sent home from school on account of his hair. The child’s father was told that the school handbook states that boys are not permitted to have dreadlocks.
  • In September 2018, officials at Christ the King Elementary School in Terrytown, Louisiana, informed one of its students, Faith Fennidy, that she was being expelled from the school because her “extensions” (braids) were unacceptable under their school code.
  • In December 2018, Andrew Johnson, a Black New Jersey teenager, was made to publicly cut his dreadlocks by a white referee to continue participating in his school’s wrestling match.
  • In January 2020, DeAndre Arnold, an 18-year-old at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas, was suspended from school for dreadlocks he started growing in the seventh grade in the same school district. He was facing possibly missing his high school prom and graduation. 

No student should be made to feel uncomfortable or discriminated against at school because of their hair. But it’s not just about hair. It’s about choice and about students and employees being empowered to be who they are culturally in the workplace and at school.

TAKING PRIDE IN BLACKNESS AND AFROCENTRIC FEATURES 

It is perhaps bittersweet that legislation has to be passed to protect our tresses and our culture in the first place. It is of the utmost importance that we feel confident and beautiful in our own skin. Luckily there is a steady reawakening around Blackness and Afrocentric features that continues to gain momentum and become normalized. 

Take the natural hair movement—encouraging women and men of African descent to keep their natural afro-textured hair—which has shifted the views of many Black people from trying to fit into a Eurocentric mold of beauty to now celebrating the kinks, coils, curls and afros we were taught to disown. Slowly, but surely, we are seeing more mainstream change to society’s discriminatory policies and definition of beauty. From legislation like the CROWN Act to Academy Award-winning animated film, “Hair Love,” and Solange’s Black girl anthem, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Black women and men are removing our metaphoric tignons and publicly embracing our natural hair and hairstyles.

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