As natural hair is embraced, states adopt laws to protect it

Why We Wrote This

Discrimination based on race is illegal. So why is it still largely legal to discriminate against people because of their natural hair? Some lawmakers have started to grapple with that question.

Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun/AP
Yasmine Young finishes styling the hair of Sabrina Bullock at the Diaspora Salon in Baltimore on Jan. 3, 2020.

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When “Hair Love,” a short animated film about a father styling his daughter’s natural hair for the first time, won an Oscar earlier this month, co-winner Matthew A. Cherry singled out a piece of legislation for special mention in his acceptance speech.

“There’s a very important issue that’s out there, it’s the CROWN Act,” he said. “And if we can help to get this passed in all 50 states, it will help” prevent discrimination against people with natural hair and hairstyles.

That effort is being realized. Virginia will likely soon become the fourth state to pass the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, with around two dozen other states and Congress weighing similar efforts.

The bill doesn’t just protect people who feel targeted by racist grooming standards. It also, advocates say, codifies an element of cultural pride for many African Americans who have long been conditioned to hide their natural selves.

“Hair is not just hair to black people,” says Jade Magnus Ogunnaike of Color of Change, a civil rights nonprofit involved in the CROWN Campaign. “It’s cultural expression and something that differentiates us from a lot of other people within the country.”

Standing in the back of her barbershop, Yolanda Gonzalez Jackson shampoos the woman sitting in front of her. As R&B music plays in the background, Ms. Jackson methodically curls her client’s hair into light finger waves, a hairstyle reminiscent of the Roaring ’20s.

As with almost all of her clients at Studio Kutz and Styles, Ms. Jackson is not using harsh chemicals, such as artificial softeners or relaxers. Having been in the business for almost 30 years, that alone is a major change. 

“Hair is hair,” she says. At the barbershop, “we’re familiar with all ethnicities, all textures, all types. And we learn it, instead of being fearful of it.” 

The same, experts and activists say, has historically not been true for the American public. African Americans’ natural hair and hairstyles, they argue, have long been the target of discrimination, leading many to hide it behind a curtain of harmful chemicals and flat irons. 

But beauty standards are changing – as is the law. Growing out of the mid-2000s, the natural hair movement encourages black men and women to embrace their untreated hair in whatever style they like. A nationwide push to ban hair discrimination has followed, and Virginia will likely soon become the fourth state to do so, with a bill only awaiting the governor’s signature. Legislatures in Colorado, Washington, and Minnesota are working on bills, and around two dozen other states and Congress are weighing similar efforts.

Known as the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, the bill against hair discrimination protects people who feel targeted by racist grooming standards. It also, advocates say, codifies an element of cultural pride for many African Americans who have long been conditioned to hide their natural selves.

“Hair is not just hair to black people,” says Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, senior campaign director for Color of Change, a civil rights nonprofit involved in the CROWN Campaign to ban hair discrimination. “It’s cultural expression and something that differentiates us from a lot of other people within the country.”

Shifting standards

That differentiation, though, has rarely been celebrated in American history. The distinct texture of African American hair made it a particular target of discrimination during the slavery and Jim Crow eras, when overt racism was common in the country, says Lori Tharps, a professor of journalism at Temple University and co-author of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.” 

Because African Americans with more European-looking hair were treated more humanely, she says black people early on used oils, butter, or makeshift flat irons to straighten their hair – a practice that carried into the country’s grooming standards. 

“From post-slavery till today, black women, black men understand that their hair has to conform to societal expectations in order to be taken seriously in the world of business, in the world of entertainment, in any kind of professional space,” says Professor Tharps, who writes on other issues relating to race on her blog, My American Meltingpot

Whereas natural hairstyles such as the Afro were used as a political statement during the civil rights era, Professor Tharps says the more contemporary and widespread natural hair movement is focused more on shifting beauty standards. But that doesn’t make it any less revolutionary. She sees the legal changes occurring now as a product of the movement’s broader social momentum, which has already affected the entertainment and beauty industries.

“Hair Love,” this year’s Oscar winner for Best Short Film (Animated), is about a father styling his daughter’s natural hair for the first time. During his acceptance speech, co-recipient Matthew A. Cherry – who wrote the film – cited the CROWN Act as a crucial step “to normalize black hair.”

The problem with “messy”

The reforms are also the result of grassroots advocacy to ban hair discrimination, increasingly called into attention by widely publicized incidents across the country. Video spread online in December 2018 of a high school wrestler in New Jersey who was forced to cut his dreadlocks before his match. A student in Texas this year was also suspended for having dreadlocks and told he couldn’t walk in his high school graduation unless he cut them. 

Research shows black men and women are more likely to feel policed by grooming standards in schools and the workforce, says Bernice B. Rumala, a co-founder of the CROWN Campaign. Since New York City passed a ban last February, she and a team of researchers, journalists, lawyers, and businesses have advocated for bans against hair discrimination, which she sees as part of more systemic racism. 

“It is much deeper than hair,” says Dr. Rumala, pointing to case studies that suggest this form of discrimination encourages bullying in schools, can have lasting mental health consequences, and adversely affects African Americans in the workforce.

In 2016, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case in which an Alabama woman lost her job for refusing to cut her dreadlocks, when a manager told her they violated company policy for being “messy.”  

The vocabulary used in grooming standards, says Shemekka Ebony, another co-founder of the CROWN Campaign, is often racialized, with words such as “unkempt” or “messy” pointing toward natural African American hair. She says that raised awareness of the issue worldwide explains the increased number of states considering banning hair discrimination. 

“I don’t think it’s just news stories that are [coming out],” says Ms. Ebony. “But there’s old stories and existing stories and people that are still fighting and are now feeling that they can come out and say something.”

A simple form of self-expression

The intense social politics surrounding hair ultimately distract from what should be a simple form of self-expression, says Ms. Jackson, continuing to curl the hair on the woman in front of her. 

The only daughter in her family, Ms. Jackson learned to style hair as a young girl. Her mother didn’t know how, so she practiced on her own “big, curly, unruly” hair, only learning later that she could turn her hobby into a business.  

Ms. Jackson encourages her clients to use natural products and hairstyles mostly to avoid the harmful effects of chemicals, which she says break off and thin the hair. But she also knows the value of style in expressing identity, something she thinks others should keep in mind before they draw conclusions.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” she says.

Editor's note: The original version misstated the source of “Hair Love.”

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