THE CROWN ACT.. Natural hairstyles can be a celebration of self-expression. But for too long, they’ve also been a source of discrimination. A new law may change that.
BY ASHLEY WEATHERFORD; PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHARIF HAMZA; FASHION EDITOR: ANATOLLI SMITH OCT 9, 2020
One of the most fraught decisions a Black woman must make before her first day at a new job is what to do with her hair. Should it be blown straight, worn natural, or braided? It should look “nice,” certainly, but in whose eyes? These thoughts, superficial though they may seem, are calculating the consequences of making the wrong move. Hair is just hair, but for some Black women in the workplace or even Black children at school hair is also a reason that they might be fired or expelled.
It’s not uncommon for workplaces and schools to maintain dress and appearance guidelines. However, unlike clothing, which can be swapped out, hair is a living part of you, and it looks different from person to person. From there, styles—braids, locs, Afros, twists, Bantu knots, and cornrows—are often antithetical to institutional and arbitrary grooming rules. In fact, sometimes these styles prevent admission altogether. A 2020 Duke University study found that Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived to be less professional and less competent, and were less likely to be recommended for job interviews than their white counterparts. Even among Black women, those with natural hairstyles were rated as less professional than Black applicants with straightened hair.
And in schools, where there should be no expectation of so-called professionalism, children have been penalized for wearing natural hairstyles too. Before the pandemic upended a Texas school’s plans for its senior prom and graduation, De’Andre Arnold was told he couldn’t attend because his locs were too long. And if you think that kind of retaliation is rare, consider the video that went viral in December 2018, in which a 16-year-old wrestler in New Jersey was pressured by a referee to undergo a haircut prior to a match in order to be able to participate.
These policies sound discriminatory, but are they legal? In many states, yes. That’s why in July 2019 California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law The CROWN Act, an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. (California was the first state to ban this kind of pervasive racism.) Implemented earlier this year, the measure prohibits schools and workplaces from discriminating against people based on their natural hairstyles. “Hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black individuals,” the act reads. “Continuing to enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism through purportedly race-neutral grooming policies that disparately impact Black individuals and exclude them from some workplaces is in direct opposition to equity and opportunity for all.” “I wore braids in high school in the ’80s without backlash,” says California State Senator Holly J. Mitchell, who authored the CROWN legislation. “I cannot imagine how the trajectory of my life would have changed if my choice to wear my hair natural had not been allowed,” she says. “I reviewed countless court cases lost by Black men and women who were either fired, not hired, or failed to receive promotions due to their natural hair.”