By: Stephanie Turcios
Artists Supporting the CROWN Act.
Nina Simone once said that it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times. Studies have shown that hair-based discrimination is a form of race-based discrimination and artists across multiple genres have denounced discrimination and promoted embracing love for all hair types. Notably, two friends, Alisha Brooks and Elizabeth Austin-Davis, created The Black Hair Experience, an art exhibit in multiple cities described as an “interactive selfie-museum…in the name of celebrating Black hair.” The inspiration for the art exhibit stems from the creators wanting to explore why Black women feel insecure about their hair in certain spaces.
This insecurity starts at a very young age. According to one study, 53% of Black mothers say their daughters have experienced race-based hair discrimination as early as five years old. The study also found that 66% of Black children in majority-white schools have faced race-based hair discrimination – and 86% of those children experienced it by the age of 12. In response to the discrimination that youth of color experience, director Matthew A. Cherry created the Oscar-winning animated short-film, Hair Love, to normalize textured hair. In his acceptance speech in 2020, Cherry supported then-pending legislation, the CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. Cherry advocated for the CROWN Act in response to the expulsion of DeAndre Arnold, a Black high-school student who was expelled for having dreadlocks. Although Arnold was later able to seek an injunction against the school district, it came at the expense of his high school graduation. See also Arnold v. Barbers Hill Indep. Sch. Dist., 479 F. Supp. 3d 511, 531 (S.D. Tex. 2020).
But What is the CROWN Act?
On March 18, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act in a 235-189 vote. The CROWN Act addresses long-standing prejudice and discrimination against people of color who wear their hair in specific styles and/or people with textured hair. The CROWN Act prohibits discrimination against individuals based on their hair textures or hairstyles. Specifically, the CROWN Act prohibits discriminatory practices in employment, housing, and other public sectors “based on the person’s hair texture or hairstyle, if that hair texture or that hairstyle is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin (including a hairstyle in which hair is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros).” The Act is currently languishing in the Senate. Due to the fierce opposition to the bill, many people fear that the bill will not pass the Senate and the issue will be left to individual states to contend with. Presently, 14 states, including Washington, have passed versions of the CROWN Act banning hair-based discrimination.
Opposition to the CROWN Act is often politically and racially charged. Inflammatory remarks, such as those from Rep. Lauren Boebert, who described the CROWN Act as the “bad hair bill” or Rep. Marjorie Greene who voted no on the “nappy hair act” only further polarize the issue. Many people watched as Rep. Jim Jordon condemned the CROWN Act as nonimportant, purporting that the issue of discrimination has already been addressed through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin. He further characterized the bill as a “distraction from issues American people care about.”
The Bigger Picture: Hair-based Discrimination is a Legal Loophole to Race Discrimination.
Proponents of the CROWN Act note that Title VII has been narrowly construed, effectively creating a legal loophole in race-based discrimination that disproportionately effects Black people. For example, in 2016, an employer based in Alabama rescinded a job offer made to a Black woman after she refused to cut her dreadlocks. E.E.O.C. v. Catastrophe Mgmt. 852 F.3d 1018, 1021 (11th Cir. 2016). The court held that “dreadlocks, though culturally associated with race, are not immutable characteristics of Black persons,” and cannot serve as a basis of a Title VII claim. Id. Also, in 2016, in South Carolina, a Black woman was fired after she refused to chemically straighten her afro despite her compliance with conservative grooming policies; her termination was upheld because she could not establish a Title VII claim. Nelson v. Town of Mt. Pleasant Police Dep’t, No. 2:14-CV-4247-DCN-MGB, 2016 WL 11407774, at *4 (D.S.C. June 28, 2016), report and recommendation adopted, No. 2:14-CV-4247-DCN, 2016 WL 5110171 (D.S.C. Sept. 21, 2016). As these cases demonstrate, the CROWN Act is meant to address where Title VII of the Civil Rights Act falls short.
Artists Empower Black People to Keep Fighting.
However, discussing the political arguments and legal cases surrounding this issue will never capture the dehumanizing effects of hair-based discrimination. Artists are better suited to express the emotional, spiritual, and mental impact hair-based discrimination has on people. Artists across many platforms have spoken out about the significance of accepting and validating all hair types. Poets such as Teeanna Munro who performed Burn Scars, or Nina West who performed The Crown, call out the discrimination people face because of the texture of their hair while simultaneously advocating for acceptance and self-love. Musicians have done the same thing. Solange wrote in Don’t touch my hair, “don’t touch my crown . . . they don’t understand what it means to me.”
Music also reflects the lived experiences of many people who face hair-based discrimination. A hip-hop classic, I am not my hair by Akon and India Arie, lyrically portrays the experience of the plaintiff in E.E.O.C. v. Catastrophe Mgmt when they said “. . . I couldn’t get no job ’cause corporate wouldn’t hire no dreadlocks.” And their lyrics ring with truth when they reflect people’s bigoted beliefs that “good hair means curls and waves, bad hair means you look like a slave,” which was insinuated by the comments of Rep. Greene and Rep. Boebert. The sad part remains that this song was written in 2006, yet these discriminatory beliefs and practices persist today in 2022.
So, Should you Care about Hair-based Discrimination?
So, is what Rep. Jordan said true? Is this an issue “American people” don’t care about? Are people of color with textured hair not part of the American people? Is discrimination not an issue the American people care about?
For what it’s worth, I think this is an issue worth caring about. In the words of India Arie, I leave you to ponder this: “Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person? Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend? Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?” If the answer to these questions is no, then a person’s hair texture or hairstyle should not be a factor when pursuing employment, education, or any other opportunity.