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Protecting regality: How prohibiting discrimination based on a person’s hair is one step closer to becoming federal law

“My daughters both have beautiful, natural, curly hair. This (CROWN) is part of our fight to be fully recognized as equal human beings.” – Rep. Ilhan Omar, co-sponsor of the federal CROWN Act

Rep. Ilhan Omar is one of the CROWN Act’s original sponsors.
Rep. Ilhan Omar is one of the CROWN Act’s original sponsors.
REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

Kinky, curly, loc’d, nappy … natural.

Almost as soon as Black women and men entered corporate America, they were subjected to subtle and not-so-subtle acts of aggression. Some acts were borne out of ignorance and lack of cultural understanding. Others borne out of intolerance and hate.

One source of such aggressions has been the natural texture of Black people’s hair … what many proud individuals have affectionately called their “crown.” Workplace aggressions based on hair not only cause undue mental stress and harm, they have cost workers income and in some cases locked people out of the corporate workforce entirely.

The cases are numerous.

For example, Brittany Noble-Jones, an up-and-coming reporter, said she was fired from her job at WJTV in Jackson, Mississippi when she dared to don her natural hair instead of wearing it straightened, as she had for the first few years of her career. The former Emerging Journalist of the Year of the National Association of Black Journalists said her boss told her that her hair was “unprofessional.” WJTV and its parent company, Nexstar Broadcasting deny the allegation, in which an EEOC suit was filed on behalf of Noble-Jones.

Eradicating the worry of discrimination based on hair is a step closer with last Friday’s U.S. House passage of the CROWN Act. The act, which passed 235-189 along party lines, would prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s texture or style of hair. CROWN is an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was one of the bill’s original sponsors. She said the House’s passage was not only for women in today’s workforce, but, more importantly, for her daughters.

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“As a mom of two Black girls, I’m glad to see and co-lead this,” said Omar. “My daughters both have beautiful, natural, curly hair. This (CROWN) is part of our fight to be fully recognized as equal human beings. My youngest daughter, who is 9, when I explained what we were doing with the act, she said ‘thank you.’”

The authenticity of natural hair

Stephenetta “Isis” Harmon has a term for Noble-Jones’ initial straightened style. While many Black women prefer and enjoy wearing straightened hair, other do it out of necessity, said Harmon, a Black beauty culturalist and founder of Sadiaa Black Beauty Guide, a directory and platform for Black-owned beauty brands.

Stephenetta “Isis” Harmon
Supplied
Stephenetta “Isis” Harmon
“I call it (straightened styles) ‘interview hair’ or ‘interview wig,’” said Harmon, who is also a journalist. “I wore a wig a couple of times to interviews, but I later decided I didn’t want to present in my less than authentic self.”

Harmon believes she’s lost out on job opportunities due to her choice of natural hair, but she said she gained much more than a paycheck.

“I have peace,” said Harmon. “That’s what the CROWN Act means for so many Black people. It means not having to fight every day when going to school or going to work. It means peace and it means safety.”

Black hair care is a booming business.

In 2018 it was estimated that Blacks spend a whopping $473 million on hair products – nine times that of non-Blacks. Many of those products help to temporarily straighten and hold the hair that is typically naturally kinky or coarse. Harmon said there’s another, far greater, cost to straitening hair.

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“The chemical process of straightening hair causes cancer and all sorts of issues,” said Harmon. “Girls are dealing with early unset puberty because of these toxic products.”

Passage in the Senate and becoming law?

In addition to addressing workplace discrimination, the CROWN Act would make it illegal to discriminate based on hair in areas of housing, education, public accommodations and federal public assistance.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the CROWN Act in the Senate yesterday. If, as in the House, the vote falls along party lines, it would pass 51-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris – a Black woman – casting the deciding vote. President Joe Biden has said he is eager to sign the bill into law.

Currently there are 12 states that have passed CROWN laws. Minnesota’s House recently passed its own CROWN bill, but it is unclear if it can make it past the GOP-controlled Senate, thus making passage of the federal act critical to protect Black people in the state from discrimination based on hair.