Discrimination against people of color based on their hairstyle is nothing new, but it is finally being addressed in legislatures around the United States. A recent article by UB School of Law alumna Reba Letsa, J.D. ’19, posted on her employer Baker Donelson‘s website, describes efforts of an organization called CROWN, the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Coalition, and offers guidance to employers about how to adjust their policies to be in compliance.
“In a developing state and local employment law trend, wearing one’s natural hair in the workplace has become a right in certain jurisdictions. People of color are most likely to experience discrimination in the workplace based on the style and texture of their natural hair,” Letsa writes.
She cites a 2019 survey of 2,000 working women between 25 and 64 who work in office environments. The study found that African American women “are 80 percent more likely to change their natural hair to conform to social norms or expectations at work, and that African-American women’s hair is approximately three times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional in the workplace,” she writes. As an example of how widespread these attitudes are, she mentions a 2018 incident in which New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson was told by a white referee to have his dreadlocks cut off or forfeit a wrestling match.
On Jan. 1, 2020, California became the first state to enact the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act. Montgomery County, Md., also enacted similar legislation this year. According to the CROWN Coalition, approximately 20 states have introduced or plan to introduce anti-hairstyle discrimination legislation, such as Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
In Maryland, anti-hairstyle discrimination Senate Bill 0531 was introduced on January 30, 2020. “This bill,” Letsa writes, “proposes to expand the term ‘race’ to include ‘protective hairstyles,’ which is defined in the bill as a hairstyle designed to protect the ends of the hair by decreasing tangling, shedding, and breakage including braids, twists, and locks.”