California Makes History as the First State to Ban Natural Hair Discrimination

Updated 07/16/19

Update: On Friday, July 12, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Assembly Bill A7797, The CROWN Act, into law – officially making New York the second state, following California, to ban hair discrimination in the workplace and K-12 public & charter schools.

For Black people, hair isn't "just hair." Our hair is our crown and the celebration of it as such is deeply woven into our ancestral history. But, often the coils, locs, and braids we proudly wear are deemed unkempt and unprofessional for public spaces. Black hair has been unjustly policed everywhere from offices to classrooms for decades. In an effort to eliminate hair discrimination, many cities and states have begun passing legislation that addresses this issue. 

In February, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued a ban on discrimination based on hair or hairstyles, at school and in the workplace. New Jersey Legislature is currently reviewing a bill that would ban hair discrimination in professional settings, housing, and public schools. And last week, California made headlines for becoming the first state to outlaw racial discrimination of people based on their natural hairstyles. 

The bill, SB 188, passed the state Senate in April and passed in a unanimous vote by California’s state assembly on June 27. The law, also known as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), states, "In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination."

Vernon François‎, a celebrity hairstylist who routinely works with A-listers including Lupita Nyong'o and Serena Williams, has long been an outspoken advocate for celebrating the beauty of textured hair. Regarding California’s ban, François‎ told us exclusively, "This is a positive step in the right direction, but we should not become complacent with this act. There is a lot that needs to be done." Rather than pat ourselves on the back, François explains that we all still need to take a hard look at the nuances around discrimination.

"We need to enlighten those who may not be familiar with how liberating it is to be free of someone else's ideas on how they should be wearing their hair," he says.

The measure also addresses the United States’ history of anti-black racism and the shortcomings of the previous anti-discrimination legislature. “The history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated “blackness,” and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment,” the bill reads. 

The act notes that while Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, it only protected against discrimination against afros. The praise-worthy impact of California’s ban is that it will protect all presentations of natural hair—including braids, twists, and locks—from discrimination in the workplace and K-12 public schools.

On the ruling, curl specialist Candace Witherspoon said, “As a black woman, I too have been discriminated upon. This law is so important for not only black women but also black men. We should be able to wear our hair however we choose without being told it’s unprofessional, unkempt, or dirty. I think telling another race to change who they are to become what you think they should look like is wrong and demeaning."

As a Black woman with curly hair, I've gone on an emotional journey to learn to love my hair in a society that praises Eurocentric beauty standards like straight hair. Today, I proudly wear my curls and protective styles everywhere from my college campus to work as a way to show that textured hair is beautiful and deserves to be worn in all public spaces without judgment.

The adoption of policies like the CROWN Act is key in creating a future where individuals are not harassed or fired based on the texture or style of their hair. The passing of the CROWN Act will legally protect the over 2 million Black employees and students in California from racist grooming policies. It is my hope that the rest of America and the world follow California's lead and pass similar anti-discrimination laws to protect millions of more people of color.

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