Updated: Oct 19, 2021
On July 1st, after years of citizens facing intolerance due to their natural hair, a bill prohibiting natural hair discrimination went into effect in Virginia. The CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), spearheaded by Dove, Color of Change, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, makes it illegal for someone to be discriminated against for their hairstyle in the workplace or in school. Hairstyles such as afros, locks, braids, and curls are all included under the bill, which is effectively protecting against race-based hair discrimination.
Virginia became the fourth state in the United States, following California, New York and New Jersey, as well as the first southern state to pass the law. Governor Ralph Northam signed the bill on March 4, and it went into effect on July 1st. Since then, seven states have passed similar legislation. In a statement, Governor Northam said the following: “It’s pretty simple—if we send children home from school because their hair looks a certain way, or otherwise ban certain hairstyles associated with a particular race—that is discrimination.”
According to the CROWN Act, Black women are twice as likely to feel the need to satisfy Eurocentric beauty standards in order to be taken seriously at work. Moreover, they are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from their workplace due to their hairstyle. Not only does this further emphasize Eurocentric features to be the standard of beauty, but it also discourages people of color from putting themselves in workplaces and schools of higher standards.
Color of Change’s Deputy Senior Campaign Director Jade Magnus Ogunnaike told Global Citizen that “hairstyle discrimination by employers and educators is a gatekeeping tactic that violates the economic and civil rights of Black people.”
The Western Center on Law and Poverties’ Communications Director, Courtney Mckinney explained that hair discrimination has harmed black people economically, socially, and psychologically and that the CROWN Act was a step in the direction of racial justice in the U.S.
The history of hair discrimination dates back centuries. The first instances of the act in the United States were in the 1700’s, where enslaved women were required to cover their hair with rags while at work. In addition, enslaved people in the “big house,” mimicked the wigs their enslavers wore.
In the 1700’s, it was common for Black women in Louisiana to wear elaborate hairstyles to attract white men. However, Spanish Colonial Governor Don Esteban Miró wanted to reduce the attention their attire was receiving, and the Tignon laws were passed. The laws required Creole women of color, free or enslaved, to wear a tignon (scarf) over their heads. Although the tignon generally signified enslavement, free women of color were also required to wear it. This put all Creole women of color at a lower standing in society, whether free or enslaved.
It later also became the norm for people of color to change their hair to fit Eurocentric standards of beauty. The hair straightening comb, invented in the 19th century, was intended to “tame” natural Black hair. The comb was popularized by Madam C.J. Walker, a Black woman. Straight hair became the preferred texture of hair, and Walker became the first female African American millionaire.
With so much influence on people of color to change their natural hair, many years passed before the first voices rose to speak up on the issue. In the 1960’s, people of color began fighting back with natural hair movements. The “Black Is Beautiful” movement was the first significant protest, with many such movements following in its footsteps over the decades.
Protestors also supported movements that demanded the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination.” However, this act did not account for hair, as that was deemed to be alterable, unlike race and ethnicity. This unresolved issue lead to many incidents of discrimination and harrasment due to one’s hair type.
Although some movements and protests have been seen as unsuccessful in terms of implementing new legislation, others have made important changes. For instance, the CROWN Act, which has already been implemented in several states, began as a movement.
Social media has allowed for the issue of hair discrimination to be given a spotlight and be seen by many. In 2018, a video of a New Jersey high school student, Andrew Johnson, went viral. He was given the options of forfeiting his wrestling match or cutting his dreadlocks off by the referee. The referee had taken part in incidents involving racial discrimination in the past, and told Johnson his hair was “unnatural,” giving him 90 seconds to cut his locks off. This was just one occurrence of hair discrimination less than two years ago, as there have been countless other cases.
In 2010, Chastity Jones accepted a job offer from Catastrophe Management Solutions. However, she was told to cut her locks off, and because she did not oblige, the company rescinded its job offer. The hiring manager reportedly said “They tend to get messy.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jones in 2013, but lost. The Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld this decision in 2016. When the case finally reached the Supreme Court, they refused to hear it and did not provide an explanation.
Less than a year ago, DeAndre Arnold, a student in Texas, was banned from graduation and prom unless he cut his locks. In 2017, Mya and Deana Cook had to serve detention for their hair. The school officials stated the reasoning: their braids violated school policy in Massachusetts. In August 2018, a 6-year-old student named Clinton Stanley Jr. was sent home from Book’s Christian Academy in Florida, due to his hair. His father was told that the school handbook states that boys are not permitted to have dreadlocks. 16-year-old Kaden Bradford was suspended for the length of his dreadlocks from Barbers Hill High School in 2020. These were just a few of the many cases of discrimination black people have faced for their natural hair.
With so many cases of hair discrimination surfacing in the media, it brings attention to the advantages and disadvantages certain groups face in the United States. Within months of the CROWN Act being introduced, more and more states are beginning to take charge of the situation at hand by banning natural hair discrimination. These changes are all in the hopes of promoting progress and equality in the U.S.
Through Teen Lenses: Virginia just became the first southern state and fourth state in the United States to ban natural hair discrimination. Are you aware that many face discimination based on their hair, have you seen or heard of examples of hair discrimination, and why do you think this happens?
“I haven’t personally experienced any natural hair discrimination, but I have read many articles and heard stories from people of color about how they’ve been judged or treated differently because of their natural hair. I think it’s odd that there should be a rule about natural hair discrimination because in my opinion it should already be normal to treat people normally regardless of their hair type or anything else but it’s good that the U.S. is making an effort to make progress.” Lanah Boissy 15, Rising Sophomore at Oakton High School, Herndon, Virginia
“Discrimination is a major issue, that too discrimination based on hair! How has the world become what it is, we need to learn to accept people for who they are. I wasn’t even aware that discrimination through hair was something going on in this corrupted society. I can’t imagine what people must be going through in order to try and fit in and be able to roam around freely. Imagine trying to take 4 hours to straighten hair so that you feel safe in this world, instead of being able to show your true self. And yes, Virginia banning the discrimination is a great thing. However it shouldn’t even be an issue or norm. It is time to wake up and face reality. People need to make a change.” Riya Shah 15, Rising Sophomore at McLean High School, McLean, Virginia
“I’ve seen a lot of people face hair discrimination based on what society kind of deems to be the beauty standard – ie. ppl being forced to straighten their etc. to fit in. I think hair discrimination might happen because of what people think isn’t the norm. Examples include people of different ethnicities having different hair (ie Caucasians vs African Americans vs Asians etc)” Sreenidhi Sankararaman, 17, Rising Senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Herndon, Virginia