By Karen Robinson-Jacobs and Dawn Suggs
“I know what it’s like to sit in that waiting room, to sit in that office, and know that the person on the other side of the table is judging me for the way I chose to wear my hair,” – Congresswoman Cori Bush, who voted in favor of the Crown Acts passage in The House.
Most Black women in this country can relate to this experience of being made to feel uncomfortable in your skin, or specifically, in your hair. Whether they’ve decided to wear their hair naturally, in braids, cornrows or locs, short or shaved, put in a weave, adorned with extensions, hot ironed or relaxed, Black women and men still are judged by white European standards of beauty in the U.S.
Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) has taken action to protect African Americans and the right to be culturally expressive of who we are by introducing in Congress, the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act which would make it illegal to discriminate against people based on a hair style and texture, “commonly associated with a particular race or national origin.”
The bill states: “Some Federal courts have misinterpreted Federal civil rights law by narrowly interpreting the meaning of race or national origin, and thereby permitting, for example, employers to discriminate against people of African descent who wear natural or protective hairstyles even though the employment policies involved are not related to workers’ ability to perform their jobs.”
The Crown Act would expand the lexicon of race and national origin under federal civil rights protection to include hair style and texture. It would prohibit discrimination on this basis at schools and in work places, and training environments, so that grooming policies and codes could no longer single out and prohibit African American hairstyles and hair. That includes “a hairstyle in which hair is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros.” It would deem such discrimination a violation of title 11, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This means one could not be legally fired or discriminated against at work because a supervisor has a dislike, disregard, or prejudice against you based on your hair or the way you wear it. The prohibition states:
“It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer, employment agency, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee controlling apprenticeship or other training or retraining (including on-the-job training programs) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against an individual, based on the individual’s hair texture or hairstyle, if that hair texture or that hairstyle is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin.”
The measure is designed to give African Americans protection from employers, or school districts that penalize an employee, trainee or student based on an intolerance of Black hair, or a style that may reflect the pride Black people have in authentic expression.
The need to offer protection to African Americans targeted due to their hair has been highlighted in several high profile cases, including a 2018 incident in which Andrew Johnson, a 16-year-old African American wrestler was told by a white referee before a match to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit, according to multiple news reports of the incident.
The New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports, suspended the referee, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) commented, “For centuries, Black folks’ hair—particularly that of Black women—has been politicized and weaponized to discriminate and reject the dignity and beauty of our people … I’m so grateful to Reps. Watson-Coleman, Lee, Omar and Moore for their partnership. I’m honored to co-lead this bill and look forward to seeing this critical bill signed into law.”
The measure moves to the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has sponsored the senate version.
Karen Robinson-Jacobs is The St. Louis American / Type Investigations business reporter and a Report for America corps member. Dawn Suggs is St. Louis American’s digital special projects director.