How the CROWN Law can help tackle racist hair discrimination in the workplace
I vividly remember starting grade 5 in a predominantly white school. “Don’t let them put their hands in your hair,” my mother warned before I went to school with a chosen afro for the first time.
When I arrived in the classroom, I was immediately greeted with enlarged blue eyes and open-palm hands. It took my teacher – who was also a black woman – raising her voice for the students to focus on the assignment rather than my appearance.
Unfortunately, the kind of situation where dark hair is both other and fetishized is not isolated from the ignorance of young people. Many black Americans have found themselves at the center of hurtful, exploitative, and discriminatory dilemmas simply because of the way they choose to style their hair.
Fast forward several years: The CROWN Act is an honest attempt to tackle what black women and girls go through just to express their identity. Originally a California law that combats discrimination based on a person’s hairstyle by extending legal protection, it is the first legislation of its kind. And while several states (including New York and New Jersey) have joined us, there is still a long way to go. Part of that journey is figuring out how to implement the spirit of the law – to tackle hair discrimination – in the workplace.
Adding the principles of the CROWN Act to HR manuals and educating all employees about hair discrimination should be a no-brainer. In many areas, black people have been kicked out of school, denied employment and harassed for wearing their hair as it grows.
Waukeen McCoy, a California-based civil rights attorney, told Mic about several experiences he has had with children traumatized in school due to reactions to their natural hair. Two children in particular still have a pending case against the school, as the 4 and 5-year-olds have been ostracized by their peers and suspended by administrators for their hairstyles, McCoy says.
McCoy says this treatment went on for weeks and weeks because families refused to change the children’s hair, and even though the community came to support them in a protest, they were ultimately kicked out of school. . Two years and several telephone and board hearings later, the school board reportedly changed the biased policy that triggered the problem in the first place, but families have received no compensation, he said.
Thus, in effect, prejudice manifests itself early. McCoy also talks to Mic about a high school girl in Texas who was threatened with not walking on graduation because of her colorful braids. An 11-year-old was told by his school that his hair was too long, and even though his mother obliged and cut, braided and pinned his hair, he ended up in school detention – for her hair. Not surprisingly, the CROWN Act was not passed in the Texas home this year.
This perpetuation of white supremacy is intentional, and it creeps from the classroom to the boardroom. Donna Davidson, a writer based in Philadelphia, had a very revealing experience when she was graduating from Spelman, an HBCU. Their departure for the students included a multi-part seminar, one of which focused on professionalism in the labor market. One of the main goals of the seminar, she says, was to encourage students to be professional in the workplace. Apparently that involved making sure black women straightened their hair.
It’s important to note that everyone is capable of perpetuating or internalizing the nefarious rhetoric surrounding dark hair. Davidson recalls a teenage experience when her hairdresser defied her mother’s wishes to keep her natural. Instead, the stylist gave her a chemical relaxer before braiding her extensions. Davidson remembers the hairdresser ruffling her hair and sighing how “ridiculous” it was that it was so “difficult.”
The idea that natural frizzy hair is a problem to be solved is an old idea that exists both inside and outside the community. The harmful concept must be eliminated once and for all – and that means normalizing black hairstyles at home, on the street and at work.
Not everyone believes the CROWN Law is enough to be a game-changer, which is fair. Will wearing box braids at a company meeting eradicate racism? Unlikely. But, it will likely force many organizations and businesses to put regulations that support us on paper, hopefully causing a shift in office culture that makes black staff feel safe and present themselves as themselves – even.
Especially after last summer’s ‘racial calculation’, HR teams across the country have focused on tackling inclusion and discrimination in the workplace. It is time to take concrete action and see it through to the end. Brooke Taylor, a Virginia-based diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, says inclusion practices need to permeate the entire business or organization, starting at the top.
Taylor’s role as an equity-focused consultant ranges from 1: 1 sessions with marginalized employees to company-wide racial sensitivity training. Working to truly promote a diverse and welcoming workplace isn’t quick or easy, but it’s clear that an organization is getting involved, they say.
“If a business is serious about diversity, equity and inclusion, it will incorporate that and trauma-informed practices into all aspects of its business structure, starting with its articles of association or board of directors.” Taylor said. “This is clearly seen in their mission and value statements. In other words, the CROWN Act is important, but that’s what it means to make the sense of the law work.
But, Taylor adds, incorporating these policies won’t always guarantee that actual business practices will change. It requires a commitment from the highest level, alongside the rest of the company, to really make sure that black employees feel safe “to be genuine themselves and be held accountable when that doesn’t happen.” they say.
It could look like troubleshooting hiring practices to reduce the influence of leadership biases, diversity review boards where employees of color are paid for their time, or outsourcing their HR departments. to ensure discretion regarding complaints of discrimination. Taylor says that while passing the bills is not a step forward, it is only a piece of the puzzle. “I don’t believe policies change hearts and minds, but a company can take a tough stance on its employees of color, regardless of federal tenure,” they add.
You can write in company policies that all hairstyles are welcome, but how do your colored employees feel when they comb their hair at work? Do you have black women in leadership who rock their natural coils?
“It’s about creating that culture not only of accountability, but also of transparency,” Taylor says. The bottom line is that it shouldn’t require a law for businesses and organizations to stand up for their employees. Everyone deserves to feel comfortable in their own body, without attention, without judgment, and certainly without fear that your job is in jeopardy.