By: Kate Sullivan and Jennifer Corujo
Hair holds power.
A person’s unique collection of curls and coils is the crown that connects them to their culture and history. And these royal locks are meant to be celebrated and worn proudly, whether free flowing or woven into braids, dreads, or twists. These styles also serve a purpose, protecting the fine textures of natural coils and curls that are prone to breakage. Unfortunately, Black men and women are often asked to dim their natural hair to fit into public spaces, like the office and the classroom.
For decades, natural hair has been policed and deemed “unkempt,” “unprofessional,” or “unruly.” There are still countless cases of hair discrimiation, where Black students have been suspended from school or Black professionals have been fired for simply wearing their natural hair.
In efforts to eliminate race-based hair discrimination, many cities and states have begun passing legislation, like the CROWN Act.
What is the CROWN Act?
The short answer: The CROWN Act—Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair—is a law currently being considered in the Senate that would make race-based hair discrimination illegal. The Act has already been passed by the House and by eight state governments (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington) and by various cities across the country.
The longer answer: In the U.S., company dress codes have disproportionately affected Black women, who are 1.5 times more likely than their peers to have been sent home from work over their hairstyle, according to a recent survey by Dove. And those are just the women who got the job in the first place. Research by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business found that “Black women with natural hairstyles including curly afros, twists or braids are less likely to get job interviews than White women or Black women with straightened hair.”
The CROWN Act isn’t about telling a company that it can’t have professional grooming standards—an employer could still say that a clown wig is a “no” for the boardroom. Rather, the law seeks to protect employees against punitive actions over their natural hair texture and styles such as braids, knots, and twists that are culturally significant and simply friendlier to textured hair than chemical straightening and heat-styling.
Hair Discrimination in the Workplace
Currently, employers can get away with demanding employees to style their natural hair differently, as was the case of a dear friend of Casey Simmons, the owner of Royal Locks. She has chosen to remain anonymous:
“I was told my natural hair style was ‘unprofessional’ and ‘unkempt’ and would have to change my hairstyle to secure my job. I resorted to changing my hair, which is a shame in today’s time. Before making the change, I filed a grievance which was unsuccessful, apparently HR did not want to address the situation … Unfortunately, I received a termination notice stating I was under performing. Prior to the hair incident, I was praised for excelling on the management and process improvement to the clinic.”
A hair-specific law is needed as previous attempts to protect traits associated with race or culture under other equal employment or civil rights laws have largely failed. Back in 2018, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case of Chastity Jones, a Black woman who had a job offer rescinded when she refused a human resources’ request to get rid of her locs, which her employer said did not comply with company rules that hair “should reflect a business/professional image.” Jones insisted that this violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; but two courts found against her, saying that because a hairstyle is not an immutable trait the way skin color or race is, it didn’t fall under this law’s protection.
Legislation like, The CROWN Act, would have protected Jones’s and Simmons’ friend’s right to keep both the job they were well-qualified for and a hairstyle that affirmed who they were as Black women.
Pushing for Legislation to Protect Ethnically Significant Hairstyles
Introduced in December 2019, the Crown Act passed the House in September 2020. But over a year has gone by, and the Senate still hasn’t passed it. States and cities (Columbus, Birmingham, etc.) have taken the Crown Act into their own hands. The Virginia Senate took things one step further, proposing and passing a sister act to help students. Their Dress Code Equity Act keeps public school grooming and dress codes from prohibiting “ethnically significant” hairstyles such as braids, cornrows, and locs, and religious headwear like hijabs and yarmulkes. The Crown Act has been filed in many state governments but not passed yet—languishing even in Southern states with high Black populations. (In 2020, the CROWN Act was considered by but did not pass in 25 states; one of them, Connecticut flipped in 2021.) In Mississippi—the Blackest state in America by percentage (38.9%)—the proposed Act died in committee in February 2020. In Florida, which has one of the highest total African American populations in the country, the Act died in the Judiciary in March 2020.
Increasing Outrage Over Hair Discrimination
In the last 10 years or so, we’ve seen much more public blowback over natural hair discrimination. Viral news stories, especially those featuring children sent home from elementary school because of braids or afro puffs and one teenager who was forced to publicly shave his locs in order to compete in a high school wrestling match, inspired online outrage. But overcoming the long history of natural Black hairstyles being deemed unacceptable will require more than thousands of Tweets.
All branches of the military have already altered their dress codes to protect dreadlocks. That’s huge. And prominent women rocking their natural hair at work surely boosts broader acceptance. But even women at the top of their fields have been criticized for wearing these styles. When congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) was planning her run for office, other Black women advised her that her Senegalese twists were “too ethnic…too urban” for the conservative world of politics. “I was shocked,” said Pressley. “It was not just by people of my mother’s ilk and generation (may she rest in power). It was by millennials and young professionals who have bought in early to these old constructs and ideas.”
A Step Towards Change
The idea that Black hairstyles are unprofessional is so embedded into the American work culture that perhaps only a national law will inspire a move toward real change.The Senate passing the Crown Act would offer long-overdue support to Black women.
Royal Locks Supports the CROWN Act
We support the CROWN Act and all individuals' right to wear protective and ethnic hairstyles to work or school. Not only are these styles beautiful, but they protect the fine textures of coily hair, which need extra love and care to prevent breakage and to let their patterns shine. Let's build a world where people are not discriminated against for their hair type.