What is hair discrimination?

New California law outlaws prejudice against African-Americans hairstyles

Black hairstyles such as cornrows are often discriminated against
(Image credit: Getty Images)

California has become the first state in the US to ban schools and employers from discriminating against people based on their hairstyle.

The Crown Act, proposed by Senator Holly Mitchell, outlaws prejudice commonly faced by African-Americans, who are often told their natural hair is “unprofessional” or “unruly”.

The issue has been in the spotlight in recent years, with a spate of incidents making headlines. Last year, the Supreme Court rejected a bid to appeal the dismissal of a race bias lawsuit involving a black woman who was denied a job because she had dreadlocks, as Reuters reported at the time.

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Months later, a high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced by a referee to cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, according to ABC News.

Signing the new anti-discrimination bill into law, California Governor Gavin Newsom said that the 16-year-old student had been forced to choose whether “to lose an athletic competition or lose his identity”, reports CNN.

“In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race,” the text of the Act reads.

“Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.”

New York City passed a similar law protecting the right to natural hairstyles in February.

Why is the legislation significant?

As well as being the first US state to introduce such measures, California has also specifically outlawed discrimination against traditionally black hairstyles including braids, cornrows, and dreadlocks, also known as locs.

Vox notes that “while the federal courts generally view afros as a racial trait protected by anti-discrimination laws, they don’t view other natural black hairstyles that way”.

Many schools across the US currently have dress codes that ban these types of hairstyles.

Why is black hair such a contentious subject?

“Black people’s - and especially black women’s - hair is knotted and gnarled by issues of race, politics, history, and pride,” writes author and academic Marita Golden in an article for Quartz.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, Senator Mitchell pointed to these issues when she proposed the new bill, which was passed unanimously in both the California Assembly and Senate.

“Eurocentric standards of beauty have established the very underpinnings of what was acceptable and attractive in the media, in academic settings and in the workplace,” Mitchell said.

“So even though African Americans were no longer explicitly excluded from the workplace, black features and mannerisms remained unacceptable and ‘unprofessional’.”

A 2016 study conducted by the Perception Institute think-tank found that the majority of participants, regardless of race, showed implicit bias against black women’s textured hair, with white women showing the strongest bias. Such hair was rated as less beautiful, less attractive and less professional than straightened hair.

Black women are often pressured to undergo expensive, damaging and often painful chemical treatments to change their natural hair to conform to societal expectations.

These treatments can also be dangerous - studies have linked the ingredients in chemical hair relaxers to uterine fibroids, cancer, and other illnesses, according to NBC News.

The politics of black hairstyles is further complicated when white people wear black hairstyles such as cornrows or dreadlocks.

Kylie Jenner is one of many celebrities to be accused of cultural appropriation for wearing cornrows, as The Guardian has noted.

Although some people argue that embracing these styles across cultures has a positive effect, others insist it is unfair that black people are discriminated against for wearing them while white people are celebrated for it.

How are attitudes changing?

In the US, a growing number of black women are embracing their natural hair.

“Two first-term Congress members are the most visible examples of this shift,” reports Vox. Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts wears her hair in twists, while another new member, Lauren Underwood from Illionois, wears her hair in short dreadlocks. Mitchell, the California senator who introduced the Crown Act, also wears locs.

Meanwhile, market research firm Mintel estimates that retail sales of at-home relaxers in the US declined by 22.7% between 2016 and 2018.

Hollywood celebrities are also embracing the trend, with Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis among those who have walked the red carpet wearing their natural hair.

Solange Knowles even wrote a song about the issue, Don’t Touch My Hair, which explores “what it feels like to have your whole identity challenged on a daily basis”, as the singer explained in 2016.

The following year she criticised the London Evening Standard for digitally removing a braided crown from her head in an image featured on the cover of the newspaper’s ES magazine.

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