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Measures at both the state and local level seek to protect natural hairstyles that African Americans are sometimes asked to change.
California last week became the first state to ban workplace discrimination based on hairstyle, one of several measures prompted by a New Jersey high school student who was forced to cut his dreadlocks to participate in a wrestling match.
The Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, passed unanimously by the California State Assembly, adds hair texture to the definition of race, protecting certain natural hair styles (including Afros, braids, dreadlocks and twists). Those styles do not change hair’s regular texture.
The bill, which also applies to housing, bans discrimination based on hairstyle but does not supercede health or safety code regulations, including policies that require workers in certain jobs to wear hairnets or hats. The legislation also does not prevent employers from enforcing “reasonable grooming standards,” provided they are the same for all employees and relate to a “bona fide job qualification.”
Leveling that playing field is the main goal, according to state Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor. Mitchell, who is black, told an Assembly panel in June that her decision to wear her hair naturally—as she’s done for the length of her career—should not affect her professional trajectory.
“Colleagues, it is 2019. From my perspective, any law that sanctions a job description that immediately excludes me from a position, not because of my capabilities or experience but because of how I choose to wear my hair, is long overdue for reform,” she said.
Mitchell’s bill was inspired in part by Andrew Johnson, a wrestler with Buena Regional High School in New Jersey who was told he could not compete in a scheduled match without a legally sanctioned head covering (the one he wore did not conform to athletic standards, according to the referee on duty).
Johnson was given the choice to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match. He opted for the haircut, allowing his team’s athletic trainer to scissor his hair in the gym while a clock counted down from 90 seconds. Johnson won his match in overtime, but the haircut overshadowed the victory.
“We hope to prevent actions like that from taking place, at least here in the state of California, ever again,” Mitchell said.
Johnson’s ordeal also inspired a proposal to ban hair discrimination in his home state of New Jersey. Similar measures have been passed in New York City and by the New York State Assembly; that legislation is awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.