Representative LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, introduced the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act to the Wisconsin Legislature August 1, aiming to protect natural hairstyles from discrimination in the workplace.
“I think by looking at hair as a racial trait, [this bill] would alleviate the negative response that African Americans have in the workplace for carrying natural hairstyles,” Myers said. “It is the way our hair grows from our scalp, so one should not be punished for that or asked to change that to follow a Eurocentric standard.”
California enacted its own CROWN legislation last July, which inspired Myers.
The bill would update the state statutes to recognize ethnic hair as a racial trait, preventing employers from using ‘race-neutral’ grooming standards. Such grooming standards often bar natural hairstyles worn predominantly by African Americans, Myers said.
Employers would still be allowed to have dress codes and grooming standards as long as they do not discriminate against natural hair textures such as locks, braids and other protective styles, Myers said.
The bill has bipartisan support. Myers pointed to Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha), who is listed as one of the bill’s authors.
“I think there are people on both sides of the aisle who are intelligent individuals,” Myers said. “They understand what’s wrong with our current federal statute and that we need to make changes.”
Myers credits California Senator Holly J. Mitchell with starting the movement.
“It is a slow drumbeat to go state by state to have this change take place but I think it is is something that is necessary,” Myers said. “If it hadn’t been for Senator Mitchell, we would not be in this place.”
Myers noted that despite the Civil Rights Act being passed in 1964, natural hair discrimination is an ongoing issue for African Americans today. In 2016, an Alabama woman lost a court case whose job offer was rescinded after she refused to cut her locks. And just last December, a New Jersey high school wrestler was forced to cut his dreadlocks moments before a match.
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Support for CROWN legislation extends beyond legislators. The beauty corporation Dove has partnered with the National Urban League, Color Of Change and the Wester Center on Law and Poverty to form the CROWN Coalition, which aims to introduce CROWN legislation across the country.
Dove has been involved in two separate race-related controversies. In 2011, an advertisement featured before-and-after images showing a model’s skin becoming lighter as she used ‘Dove Visible Care’ body wash. In 2017, Dove came under fire again for an ad which appeared to show a black woman turning into a white woman.
For Ruby Bafu, a second-year sociology PhD student, Dove’s endorsement of the CROWN Act does not erase past controversies.
“Yeah, they’re apologizing, and they might have endorsed the act, but that ad also sent a message,” Bafu said.
Bafu, who is black, said that growing up, she did not know how to wear her natural hair. Her mom would just perm it a majority of the time. When she began her undergrad at Cornell University, she met other black women who directed her to online resources and taught her how to take care of her natural hair.
Her journey with her hair motivated her to pursue an honors thesis project studying the gendered, political and racial nature of black natural hairstyles in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.
“Reflecting on my own experiences as a black woman on my relationship with my hair, and how that relationship grew over the years because I had more experience in dealing with it and style it, I learned to appreciate it more,” Bafu said. “And that’s how I think I got my motivation for the [honors thesis] project.”
While black natural hairstyles have been studied and written about before within the black community, Bafu felt it had not been given academic appreciation.
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Bafu’s research found that while black women in the U.S. felt strong pressure to chemically straighten their hair, and the issue was more pronounced in the Dominican Republic, where it creates an economic barrier. Repeatedly straightening hair is expensive, but for many black women, adopting natural hairstyles meant jeopardizing employment prospects.
“In Santo Domingo, in the neighborhood where I was living, there are hair salons on every corner to straighten your hair,” Bafu said.
When Bafu returned in 2017, she said she suddenly noticed more women wearing natural hairstyles.
Bafu credits part of the change to a hair blog that became popular in the Dominican Republic. The blog’s author, Carolina Contreras, known as Miss Rizos, started the blog in 2011 and later opened one of the Dominican Republic’s first natural hair salons.
One common experience for Dominican women was not having guidance and support when it came to wearing natural hair, Bafu said. When Contreras started her blog, she became a mentor to many.
“I think that over time, with social media, people were understanding that they had options,” Bafu said.
Although its possible for non-black individuals to wear what are typically African American hairstyles, those hairstyles are worn by African Americans as their natural hairstyles. Not hiring someone because of their natural hairstyle is essentially the same as not hiring someone because they are black, Bafu said.
Due to lack of representation in media, black women have to constantly confront hairstyles different from their own, whereas non-black individuals rarely have to encounter black hairstyles, Bafu said.
Myers believes the passage of the bill will shift how people think about appropriate hairstyles in the workplace away from a Eurocentric view.
“We have to widen our scope and understand that America is not just one thing, one type of person,” Myers said. “We have to be inclusive of all people and we have to understand that hair is a part of who we are.”