Nappy. Kinky. Too curly. These are adjectives sometimes used to describe natural black hair. While they can be insulting, some lawmakers say these perceptions also lead to discrimination against African Americans.
Several recent high-profile incidents involving discrimination and racial insensitivity have convinced lawmakers that more federal protections need to be put in place to prevent prejudice against hairstyles associated with black culture.
New Jersey senator and Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker has introduced a measure that would prohibit discrimination against hairstyles commonly worn by African Americans.
“Discrimination against black hair is discrimination against black people,” Booker said after introducing the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, or CROWN, Act. “Implicit and explicit biases against natural hair are deeply ingrained in workplace norms and society at large. This is a violation of our civil rights, and it happens every day for black people across the country.”
Booker pointed to a case from December 2018 when a New Jersey high school student named Andrew Johnson was forced to publicly cut his dreadlocks minutes before a wrestling match in order to avoid forfeiting. The video, which showed a despondent Johnson, sparked widespread outrage. Then in October, Penn State University football player Jonathan Sutherland received a racist letter in which the writer called his dreadlocks “disgusting.”
While federal law already prohibits hair discrimination as it pertains to “racial or national origin discrimination,” Booker argues that some federal courts have “narrowly construed” those rules in a way that allows schools and workplaces to discriminate against black people who “wear certain types of natural or protective hairstyles.”
The legislation would make “clear that discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles associated with people of African descent, including hair that is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots and Afros is a prohibited form of racial or national origin discrimination,” Booker said.
Sometimes hairstyles can lead to profiling in dangerous and disturbing ways. Take the case of D.C. homicide detective Jed Worrell, who said he was profiled in a police station because of his dreadlocks. In November an altercation broke out when two white officers separately asked to see the 27-year veteran’s identification at the station. Worrell said while his back was turned the officers grabbed his shoulders. He then flung one officer at a window, according to a police report. The encounter ended when the other officer pulled out a stun gun and placed Worrell in handcuffs.
“I felt a sense of humiliation as though I was expected to kowtow to the sergeants,” Worrell said in a complaint to the city’s equal employment officer obtained by The Washington Post. “I was profiled simply based on the way I look, different with dreadlocks.”
“Every day, black women and men are forced to consider if their natural hair is ‘appropriate’ or ‘professional’ by Eurocentric standards,” said Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a co-sponsor. Lee was among those who pushed the Department of Defense in 2014 to allow servicemembers to wear braids, twists and dreadlocks while eliminating “matted” and “unkempt” from the Army’s regulations.
The federal initiative is also part of a state-by-state push to get similar measures passed from a group that includes Dove beauty products. So far, California and New York are the only states that have passed a CROWN Act. Meanwhile, others including Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and Pennsylvania have introduced legislation.
Black women are 50 percent more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. Meanwhile, 80 percent of black women “feel the need to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office,” according to a survey from Dove. The same survey concluded that black women’s hair is three times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.